Creative Lives — Illustrator Jack Oliver Coles on freelancing, people-chasing and the power of social media
Welsh illustrator Jack Oliver Coles has always turned to social media as his main source of inspiration – and even his income. Using Instagram, in particular, as an effective way to approach publications and creatives in the industry, it’s also been a way to regularly publish his work – eventually leading to that long-awaited first commission. With clients such as WeTransfer, Intern magazine and The National AIDS Trust under his belt, he’s now three years into his post-graduate freelance lifestyle and admits that he feels like he’s only just found his feet. We find out more about the challenges Jack faced while freelancing, what it’s like working in Newport and how social media can be used as a powerful tool for self-promotion.
Freelance Illustrator, represented by Bright Agency
BA Illustration, Cardiff Metropolitan University (2016)
How would you describe what you do?
I create colour pencil illustrations for private and commercial clients. The work I do includes charity education campaigns, educational books, editorial illustrations and portraiture.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
My working day is pretty fluid as I work from home and tend to work best at night. I don’t usually allocate myself strict working hours, instead I attempt to work through a rough to-do list. Freelancing comes with a lot of unseen work, so I also fit in things like emailing clients and checking or updating social media when I want a break from colouring in.
How collaborative is your role?
Pretty much everything I work on has to be negotiated with a client, so it is very collaborative. Projects are usually very back-and-forth – they involve lots of messaging, sending roughs and getting feedback before I can get started on any final pieces.
Plant People by Jack
Plant People by Jack
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is being able to see your work in situ, whether that’s printed or online. The worst part is definitely having to chase people when it comes to getting paid.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
It was probably being featured in a Creative Pride pop-up at [store] We Built this City in London earlier this summer. Also, getting to see my work for sale in central London alongside other queer creatives that I’ve admired for years was so lovely.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Most of the skills I’d say you need are things that I’m not sure that I actually possess. The ability to properly manage your time is so important when you have to work to other people’s deadlines, and being available to communicate effectively is essential when you’re trying to rationalise other people’s vague desires through email. In a broader sense, I think having a passion for your field is the most essential thing because you may have to get through a lot of rejection before you start achieving anything.
“[Being passionate] is essential because you may have to get through a lot of rejection before you start achieving anything.”
What do you like about working in Newport, Wales?
As I still live with my family, the support and convenience are what keep me here at the moment. Newport doesn’t necessarily have many artistic opportunities, which is okay for someone who does most of his business online – but it is very well connected for when I do need to get out.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I’m not currently working on anything but I just finished a short series of illustrations for a small local exhibition. Even if your job is doing the thing you’ve always dreamed of being paid to do, you’ll probably still need a creative outlet. In my case, that’s deciding to draw naked people holding plants when I should probably be working on commissions. But it’s a productive form of procrastination which I think is a good thing.
Illustration for a Grand Matter and Everpress pride campaign
What tools do you use most for your work?
I do all of my sketches in an A5 sketchbook. Then I compose my final plans using the sketches in Photoshop, print out the plans, and use an A3 light-box to trace the final image using Crayola coloured pencils and Faber-Castell Polychromos onto paper, before taking it back into Photoshop for colour correction and to clean things up if necessary.
What inspires your work? How important do you think it is to land on a particular style as a creative?
People are usually the biggest source of inspiration, whether directly or indirectly, which is why the majority of my work – paid or personal – is figurative. I first started drawing in my current style for a one-off illustration in university while I was trying to make something in an overtly-retro style. Though that style has kind of disappeared, there was something about coloured pencils that made my work look more ‘complete’ than other materials.
I don’t think sticking to one style is necessary for everyone, but it is helpful for potential commissioners to get an idea of what they’ll get. Also, even if you do stick to one style, you’ll still find that it develops over time as you approach different projects.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
Instagram has really been the biggest help to me, but whatever social media platform you are most comfortable on should be able to function in the same manner. Curate the accounts you follow to develop a source of inspiration and motivation, and also keep track of the work that other people are making and who is commissioning them.
Sassify Zine, 2018
Atomic Blonde, 2017
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
It sounds very predictable but I always said that I wanted to be an artist.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My parents were always very supportive and gave me the time to work out what I wanted to do. Neither of them is particularly creative and I’m not sure they necessarily knew that you could even have a career as a creative, but they never tried to steer me towards a more standard career and always encouraged my work.
Have your studies been useful to the work you do now?
I studied at degree level – and for me, personally, it was a necessity but in general I don’t think it is. I was pretty aimless before my degree and knew nothing about the field of illustration when I started, so I really did have to learn everything I possibly could in the three years I had there. But for someone that is more proactive and knows about the opportunities that are out there, having a degree wouldn’t be so essential.
“I graduated three years ago now and I feel like I’m only just finding my feet.”
After graduating, what were your initial jobs or steps?
I made sure to gear my work towards a live context by my final project, but I was still pretty lost when I graduated. I did the usual mass of emails to anyone involved with a publication that had ever featured an illustration, although it didn’t really amount to anything. I did free work, even though I know that you shouldn’t; I was desperate to get my work published anywhere. I also used to contact and follow any organisation that featured other recent graduates that I followed on Instagram in the hopes they’d think my work was of a similar interest. I graduated three years ago now and I feel like I’m only just finding my feet.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Not to diminish my own abilities but I think there has been a lot of luck involved. My first lucky break was just after finishing university when my tutor put me forward for a book commission someone had approached her about. She helped negotiate everything, including my fee, and it was so nice to have someone I knew help guide me through my first real project.
Drag and Draw illustration
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
The biggest challenge has definitely been learning to juggle multiple projects and schedule my time effectively. I’ve always been a procrastinator who needs the pressure of a deadline to get me to work, which means that I’m often left with multiple projects to finish all at once which can cause big problems if there are unforeseen issues.
What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance?
As a freelancer, you have to do a lot of people chasing, which is something I’ve always struggled with. As soon as you manage to secure a job you have to be on the lookout for the next while still also carrying out the actual creative work. Everything really is down to you, which can be a lot of pressure. I always worry about being too pushy, so I made the decision to find an agent to take care of that part of the commission process.
“I’m not particularly good at approaching people, so uploading work online is a great way to get my work noticed.”
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
A lot of the time you have to spend time or money before you’re able to make any money back. For my private commissions, I now charge people the full cost upfront because in the past there have been too many instances of people backing out once I’ve already started working. Professional commissions are a bit different because you can work for a month and then spend another month chasing payment. I also sell prints online and at illustration fairs which can, in some cases, require hundreds of pounds to be spent on stock, transport and accommodation with no guarantees you’ll get anything back.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Social media – Instagram, in particular – has been my main source of commissions until very recently. I’m not particularly good at approaching people or putting myself out there, so uploading work online is a great way for me to get my work noticed. I don’t quite know how it managed to take off, but somewhere along the road of uploading every now and then people started to interact with my work and eventually people started approaching me for commissions.
Museum illustration by Jack
What would you like to do next?
I think I’d like to get to the point where I could fully support myself based purely on the work I create independently. I feel honoured every time someone commissions me, but the constant deadlines can be pretty draining and can leave you too tired to work on what you want to make for yourself.
Could you do this job forever?
I think so, because I don’t know what else I could do!
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Follow other creatives at a similarly early point in their career, and keep track of the places where they’re getting featured and published. That was my tactic at least, and it helped me get some of my earliest commissions. Be open-minded to any creative opportunities that come your way and only include the sort of work you’d like to do again in your portfolio.