Creative Lives — Lettering artist James Lewis on going from legally homeless to finding Instagram fame
From being legally homeless as a teenager to setting up a successful business as a freelance lettering artist, the story of James Lewis’ professional and personal development is both striking and affirming. At sixteen years old, James was inspired to explore the art of lettering through videos about calligraphy. He went on to pursue typography in various forms, including painting, drawing, logo creation and sign-making. Now he uses Instagram to cultivate his personal brand and has grown an extensive following in the process. Recently he was commissioned to produce work for big companies like Hasbro Games, as well as being invited to take part in a lettering workshop tour of the US with Goodtype last year. He talks to us about how he developed his style, the most effective methods of self-promotion and the importance of taking stock of your achievements.
Freelance Lettering Artist
The Snaffling Pig Co., Hasbro, White Sky Creative
University of South Wales, Cardiff (2017)
How would you describe your job?
I draw and paint letters. I do logos and I’ve worked with companies like Hasbro Games on product promotion. Because I have a large social media following, there are so many different projects that come through and I get to choose the ones that I enjoy most.
What does your typical working day look like?
I try to do Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm, whether that’s in the office or I’m working from home. I make sure that I’m always creating things, whether that’s for clients or making artworks that are going to be turned into prints or doing video editing for social media.
How collaborative is your work?
I’m in a lucky position where a lot of the clients I work with trust me and give me complete creative control. That works really well for me – I work well on my own; I’m usually able to produce high-quality work that the client is pleased with.
When I’m working with agencies the projects are very collaborative and I value those just as much because they help to push me in other directions.
What has been your most exciting recent project?
Brooke Robinson from the company Goodtype reached out to me around April last year and I got to teach in the US as part of their lettering tour – that was incredible! Last year I taught in Tokyo and Singapore as well. There are a lot of people out there who are really interested in lettering and want to learn how to do it, so I’m lucky enough to be able to travel around the world and teach. I have a workshop in Oslo coming up in March, as well as talks in Hong Kong and Amsterdam.
3D lettering demonstration
Would you say it's competitive to work as a lettering artist?
The people doing lettering aren’t necessarily competitive themselves – not the ones I’ve met anyway. Actually, the more you collaborate and meet people in your field, the more likely you are to get jobs. I get incredible amounts of offers for projects these days and I can’t take all of them on, so I’ve outsourced a lot of work to friends.
How do you find living and working in Cardiff?
I’ve lived here for around six years. There’s a really thriving creative community here. It’s also a very connected city and only a few hours out from London, where I often have projects or meetings.
What's your approach to self-promotion?
Everything I do now, whether it’s painting or going for a meeting, I try to turn into self-promotion via an Instagram story or video. The more content you put out there showcasing who you are and what you do, the more likely you are to attract clients who resonate with your personality and values as well as your content and designs.
“The more content you put out there, the more likely you are to attract clients who resonate with your personality and values.”
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
A lot of the art I make is infused with positive messages – the sort of messages I didn’t hear enough of when I was growing up. Seeing people’s reactions to that is the best part of what I do.
The worst part is the lack of structure. It’s less of a worry now but definitely for the first year and a half of my business I was really reliant on getting commissions from my posts doing well on Instagram. I was rushing to get work out there based on fear, whereas these days I’m able to let the work flow naturally and the quality has improved as a result.
Recreation of NASA logo
Have you ever found it difficult to make money?
When I started out, I was creating amazing things and enjoying myself but I wasn’t necessarily monetising. If you’re not making money you can’t eat food, you can’t rent workspace, you can’t paint. I managed that by coming to an understanding of how much my time is worth to a potential client.
For example, I might be designing logo for a client making a revenue of £100k per year and my logo has the potential to open up their brand to a new audience and increase their revenue to £200k per year. If I’m charging £100 for a logo which they’re going to make £100k from, there’s a clear discrepancy.
I read a lot of books on marketing and pricing, watched videos on Youtube, and realised that I could price my work based on its value to my client. That helped me redefine my pricing model, charge more and spend more time on commissions.
What skills are essential to your work?
Within lettering, there’s calligraphy, hand-lettering, sign-painting, traditional typography and graphic design. As a lettering artist, it helps to have a grounding in all these things but it’s definitely not necessary. There are specialist lettering artists who make a good living by sticking to a specific style.
The essential skills really depend on what you want to pursue but I do think that a good understanding of calligraphy is important, just so that you know how letterforms are constructed.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My most important tools are pencil and paper. That’s where all the ideas come from. I do use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for editing, but also just paint and a paintbrush.
What resource would you recommend as a source of inspiration? I read a tonne of books – not much fiction but lots of different disciplines. I read books on marketing, on spirituality and meditation, and I know that what I read unconsciously informs what I create. One the best books I’ve read is Start With Why by Simon Sinek. It’s good for anyone looking to build up a personal brand and it focuses on why you do things, not just on what you do.
There are also some great podcasts, a few of which I’ve been interviewed on – the Perspective Podcast by Scotty Russell, the Honest Designers Podcast – which talk about being creative, tips and tricks.
Do you have any tips on finding your feet as a freelancer?
You need to be self-promoting everything you do, sharing it on social media platforms, putting your content out there, telling the world what you’re doing. If you’re excited about your work, that’s contagious. Also – don’t worry! When you turn your passion into a career you can easily lose sight of why you started, so just remember to enjoy the process.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an artist. When I was around five years old, I won five pounds as the star prize for a drawing competition. My mind was racing with how many Freddos I could buy! That was a defining moment for me when I realised that I could be compensated for something I loved doing.
Did your upbringing have an impact on your choice of career?
Definitely. Unfortunately, both my parents passed away before I was eleven years old, but my mum had a really big impact on me. She’d say, “you only get one life, so live it as fully as you can”. She had motor neurone disease so she was slowly passing, over a period of two years. he was such a strong woman and came to terms with it quite early on. It was enough for her that she had brought my brother and me into this world and had made a good impact. I think she conveyed to us that it doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you’re doing good things to leave the world a better place than when you came into it.
My decision to work for myself definitely comes from the fact that I was independent from a young age, and my decision to create art infused with positive messages also comes from those early experiences.
Was your degree useful to your career?
I studied graphic design and pursued calligraphy alongside it, which really helped me to define my style as a lettering artist. I learnt so much and it set me up for building my own website and creating engaging content.
“The satisfaction that I got from seeing myself improve over a long period of time was addictive.”
When did you decide to make lettering your focus?
I started hand-lettering when I was around sixteen years old. After my parents passed away, I was legally homeless because I had no fixed address. I got help from the government and moved into an assisted living situation in a house with a wonderful lady called Lynne Appleyard. She inspired me to believe in myself. I was spending all the time that I wasn’t in school just playing video games and escaping, and she’d say to me, “why not spend that time cultivating a skill that might benefit you later in life?”
I had seen a few videos on calligraphy which really peaked my interest. It was hard to pick up but the satisfaction that I got from seeing myself improve over a long period of time was addictive.
Recreation of PlayStation logo
Is there anything about your job that you didn’t expect?
I guess the most unexpected thing is that I get paid to draw letters! When people outside the creative sphere hear what I do they just sort of look at me with this blank expression and then I tell them I have 300 thousand followers on Instagram and I show them the videos and they get that it’s entertainment. I think the entertainment factor of what I do has really surprised me as I was quite shy growing up – although I’m definitely not now!
What would you like to do next?
Last year as a key note speaker at the Made by Few creative conference in Arkansas I had a platform to share my story and open up a conversation about the things people go through in relation to growing up and trying to be a creative person. We all go through varying degrees of trauma in our lives and I think that by speaking about it we can inspire and support each other.
I’d love to do more public speaking in the future with a focus on mental health awareness, creativity, growing a brand and social media. Sharing my story is very affirming for me and has a positive impact on people.
“When you turn your passion into a career you can easily lose sight of why you started, so just remember to enjoy the process.”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative looking to get into a similar area of work?
I’d recommend starting with calligraphy. It’s how type was developed; it’s the earliest form of letters. Then pursue different avenues with lettering – there are so many forms and mediums. I guess what makes my work stand out is that I found a way to combine the different practises I’d learnt into something exciting.
Start today and document the whole process. People get bogged down when they don’t get validation for their work right away, but there’s value in seeing the whole journey rather than just placing importance on the end results. If you scroll back through my Instagram posts, you can see that I was really bad at first, but I had this naïve confidence in that I’d just share all my work and ask for feedback, which ultimately made my work better.
3D lettering process