Creative Lives — Work with a unique creative voice: Artist and illustrator Murugiah on style, clients and studying
Sometimes, the process of finding your creative calling is all about finding out what doesn’t work for you. And for Murugiah, he first learnt this lesson after realising that a career in architecture just wasn’t going to work out. Instead, he followed his passion and began making a living as an illustrator around 2013. Since then, Murugiah says it’s been a journey of continual exploration to refine his technique – getting ever-closer to his unique voice as an artist. Here, he tells us all about his journey – from studying, to adopting a ‘work for hire’ approach, to finally settling into a style that works for him.
Artist, full-time, 2013–present
Apple, Vans, Penguin, Disney
BArch, Architecture, Kingston University (2006–2009)
MAarch, Architecture, London Metropolitan University (2010–2012)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an artist. My work centres around escapism via the dichotomy of my Western birth and upbringing, and my South Asian heritage. I mainly work with clients and companies that I can collaborate with on creating my own artwork for their brands. My personal artwork drives how my commercial work goes.
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
I’m doing well. The thing that is helping me during this time is being able to continue working; it’s a nice distraction to everything else going on in the world. I’m a bit of a homebody, so I actually used this time to find my true voice as an artist. If you look at my Instagram you’d see that I had a more textured, gritty style – but I wasn’t happy about this, so I decided to change things up. Everything on my website at the moment is the result of this lockdown period.
“Working [is] a nice distraction to everything else going on in the world. I actually used this time to find my true voice as an artist.”
‘Herald’ digital print, detail, 18x24' (2020)
‘Herald’ digital print, detail, 18x24' (2020)
‘Herald’ digital print, 18x24' (2020)
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I tend to wake up at about 6.30, or 7am. Most mornings I will do a weights workout and go for a run, then start working at 9am. I check any emails and social media first, then I start making artwork until 6 or 7pm. Then it’s dinner time and social time with my partner. She tends to have a similar routine.
This happens nearly every day during the week and I tend to take weekends off. I work from a spare room in our flat.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Honestly, this newer style of work that I’ve been making during lockdown is very exciting. It feels the most personal to me in both subject matter and aesthetics. I’ve currently got a summer print release up in my online store called ‘Herald’, [above] it’s the perfect blend of all of my influences right now.
What inspires your work? And how important do you think it is to land on a particular style as a creative?
I’m inspired by so much of the world around me. My work brings in south asian references, Sri Lankan Tamil typography and also some sci-fi elements. My pieces tend to have quite busy compositions, so I like to throw in lots of moments for people to discover upon multiple views of the work. It’s very surreal and colourful!
My work isn’t pre-planned. I start with a loose idea of what I’d like to do and just add and take things away until the piece feels done. Working this way helps me stay out of my head, avoid overthinking, and means I can get work out at a steady pace.
When it comes to style, you can go a couple of different ways. You can be the type of illustrator or artist that creates something that suits each client project, or you can have a very unique style that you apply to projects. I’ve done both. In my early years I had a style that was very adaptable to lots of different projects and I did a lot more ‘work for hire’ type of jobs: maps, specific editorials, book covers and so on. But I was always leaning towards the art side of the job, and wanting to have a unique voice that I could apply to various collaborations. That’s what I do now.
“In my early years, my style was adaptable to lots of different projects and I did a lot more ‘work for hire’ jobs.”
Play, digital work, 30x40' (2020)
What tools do you use most for your work?
As my work is mainly digital, I mirror PhotoShop from my desktop onto to my iPad, and use an Apple pencil to draw my pieces out. At the moment I’m more of a mouse-based digital artist, however, as the work is easier to make on Photoshop by clicking rather than drawing.
I also have a flat file for my prints, and an easel for non-digital work. I’m keen to get some original works on paper and canvas done near the end of the year, mainly using acrylic pens and paints. Let’s see what happens!
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
I really enjoy the many design podcasts out there. The Creative Boom podcast with Katy Cowan is amazing – she’s like Oprah to me! Then there is the Arrest All Mimics podcast with Ben Tallon and The Creative Pep Talk with Andy J.Pizza. All the hosts are super down to earth, which is why I like these podcasts the best.
‘Terrarium Dreams’, 2020
How I Got Here
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My parents took my brother and I to see a lot of movies when we were young. We both spent so much time consuming media, video games, comics. As I got a little bit older I spent most of my time re-drawing characters from films I liked.
I showed an early interest in art during my late school years. I’d often spend free periods in the art room, or help out with designing and illustrating school backdrops for fashion shows and plays. It was fun. My parents were pretty encouraging for the most part!
Did you go to university? If so, do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
When I was 18, l told my parents I wanted to be an artist, but they wanted me to work in the medical field. The happy compromise was studying architecture at university. As Asian immigrants, they led the lives of folks leaving your homeland, where becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer paved the way for the next generation to be more free in what they do – but I guess they were still holding on to that original path for their kids.
[Studying architecture] was fun, and definitely had an impact on the type of work I make now. I have a compositional style, so architecture taught me about how to use space. But the main thing I found at university were like-minded friends who I still hang out with, nearly 15 years later.
If you want the university experience of meeting new people and just having fun as a young person, do it! But I don’t think you need to go to university to become an artist illustrator. If you’re passionate about it, save some money and use the power of the internet to get an art history education, or tips on becoming a commercial artist.
“I worked for an architecture practice and discovered that the job was not for me – so much so that I developed some stress-induced medical problems.”
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
After seven years of architecture training, I worked for an architecture practice and discovered very quickly that the job was not for me – so much so that I developed some stress-induced medical problems. So I quit, left it all behind and returned to my true passion: art.
I started to make pieces that sat in the commercial realm. Tarantino screenplay book covers in the style of Penguin classics, stuff like that. I started to get work within a year of doing that.
How did you go about landing your first clients?
I had the mindset of ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’ I was tenacious, and emailed art directors to introduce myself. For some folks that’s uncomfortable, as they want to naturally discover you. I’ve been learning the nuances of finding clients, or allowing clients to find you, to this day.
But since then, I’ve realised that the work should be the main focus, and finding the right client for your work garners better results. Landing your first client is cool, but landing your first client that really believes in your voice and style is more important. Focus on your unique voice and the rest will follow. I’ve herd that phrase so many times but only recently discovered what it meant.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
Nah, I define lucky breaks as overnight successes and they just don’t happen for 99 percent of us. But I do think that every project I’ve done since 2012 has helped me realised what I don’t want to do, and focus on what I do want to do. It’s a long laborious journey of discovery. You have to find the fun in that or you won’t survive. I’m still trying to cultivate patience in the process.
“Every project I’ve done has helped me realised what I don’t want to do. It’s a long laborious journey of discovery.”
How important would you say social media has been to establishing your career?
It’s a double-edged sword for sure. It clearly has its benefits; being able to share work online so that fans, customers, art buyers and directors can see it is great – it's how I get most of my work. But the compare and despair aspect of it is toxic. The constant discouragement you get after seeing someone else you follow do well, can be hard. It’s why my main advice is to focus on your own personal journey; it becomes so unique to your own experience that you won’t be able to compare it to others.
What’s been your biggest challenge in navigating the industry?
On top of being in an industry that, like many others, are dominated by white men at every level? Cultivating patience and being kind to myself. Some artists will find their groove pretty quickly, for others it can take a while, and that is ok!
“It’s a long laborious journey of discovery. You have to find the fun in that or you won’t survive.”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Work with a unique creative voice. Give yourself some art rules; for example, I decided to use flat colour and graphical framing devices. Then, start to drip-feed unique aspects of your personality in. For me it’s the juxtaposition of being born and raised in the West, and liking all things that I like: pop culture, film, fashion and so on, while still having South Asian heritage and using typography from my parents’ native language.
Then, just make and share, make and share… Use social media in exactly the way it’s described: social. Say nice things about other peoples’ work that you specifically like, and shout out your friends. And give advice to the next wave of young professionals coming into the industry.