Creative Lives — “This job has infinite potential”: We meet Brighton-based illustrator Nishant Choksi
To stay relevant, stay interested in your own work. Brighton-based illustrator Nishant Choksi knows this better than most. After spending a decade producing digital vector illustrations, Nishant risked losing clients to switch up his style and return to brush and ink. Today, his playful, witty and character-based work can be seen in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times and the Real Review. He tells us about his inspirations, the impact of social media on working practices and the journey that took him from fine art to graphic design and finally illustration.
Graphic Designer, The National Gallery Shop, London (3 months)
BA Fine Art, Central St Martins Art in Painting (1995–1998)
The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, Playboy, The New York Times, The Guardian, Google, The Surfers Journal
A self-portrait by Nishant
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an illustrator currently working mostly for magazines and newspapers internationally, but I’ve also worked on advertising campaigns and in publishing. I’ll be given an article, headline or subject, and I produce humorous, character-based concepts for articles. My approach lends itself to editorial, which requires problem-solving with multiple solutions to tight deadlines. I’ve also recently started being asked to animate my work for online platforms.
What does a typical working day look like?
I wake at 6.45am, have a coffee and quietly look at emails and instagram. I work a lot for companies based in the US, so I receive most feedback or new jobs during the night. My children wake at 7.15am and then it’s a manic rush for all of us to get out the house. I arrive at my studio in Brighton at 9.30am, which I share with about 15 other creatives. After answering emails, I’ll start work.
“Having your work in bigger publications means you are seen by more people, and this often leads to more work.”
I always have a deadline and multiple jobs on the go. I’m either reading an article and sketching ideas or inking up final drawings. I have two desks that sit opposite each other: a standing drawing table where all my work is done with brush and ink, and a computer desk for colouring and finishing.
My time is split equally between both computer and drawing work. I don’t like being in front of the screen all day. I work straight to 6pm, with 20 minutes for lunch. Most of my work in done in the studio. Although I also now have a home studio, which is especially useful when I’m working with US clients because of the time differences. When I have the time I also like working in my sketchbook at a coffee shop.
Work for Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin
What do you like about working in Brighton?
Brighton is a beautiful, compact cosmopolitan city with the relaxed feel of a seaside town. It attracts lots creatives and freelancers, and there are many studios and creative spaces. When I moved down from London, I met a number of other illustrators and found a great studio fast. There is always lots going on, from food, music and arts festivals, and when you’ve had enough of the city you can escape to the Downs which is the countryside around the town. Because of this, housing is expensive and space is limited.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I regularly appear in papers and magazines and so have an ongoing visible presence. If your work appears in some of the bigger publications like The New Yorker or The Guardian, you are seen by more people and this often leads to more work. I am approached by quite a steady stream of clients and am lucky enough to be able to pick the projects I want to work on. Of course I have a website and am active on Instagram, too.
How collaborative is your work?
This varies from client to client. For some art directors there is a tone they want, so you have to do your best to deliver under those constraints. But there are some ADs who you’ll be able to encourage to go in a less obvious direction. From experience, you know which ones are more open to different ideas; in this situation I try to offer them many more options they hadn’t initially considered. In this instance, the collaboration between myself and the client is subtle and rewarding. You get more pieces out of it that work beyond the article.
Trump spot illustrations for The New Yorker
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
This job has infinite potential. A client can contact you at any time, from anywhere in the world – this unpredictability is always exciting. When you do get a job, the sketch phase – looking for the idea and getting the right concept – is a lot of fun, even though you always have the fear of not solving it.
One of the least enjoyable aspects is when you are given the idea to illustrate. This means the client has taken away your voice and you’re left with just your style. That can feel a bit superficial.
But the worst part has to be the admin: negotiating fees, contracts, invoicing, chasing payment. And when you work for international clients there is even more paperwork. Sometimes you can spend a good percentage of your time not drawing.
A good work-life balance is really impossible to achieve. Because of the nature of the work, working for yourself, the unpredictability of the jobs coming in, you are either too busy or too quiet.
Illustrations for the Real Review with OK-RM
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
There have been a number of projects I’ve enjoyed. Doing the covers for Real Review with OK-RM. I did a series of cartoons for Playboy working with the creative director Chris Deacon. And creating ads and T-shirts for The Surfers Journal with James Newitt. Interestingly, these jobs have all come from personal work, which has then turned into commissioned work.
What skills are essential to your job?
A love of drawing, persistence, working on your own, the ability to generate your own ideas, discipline and energy.
“I come from an Asian background, where a career in the arts was not encouraged. Because of this I had to fully commit myself to it and do it early.”
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
There is constantly a battle for time between completing commission work, family, and doing your own self-initiated projects. I am always drawing in my sketchbook and have many ideas for projects, but turning them into pieces I can promote sometimes doesn’t happen. At certain points, however it does come to a head, and you force yourself to take the time off to do your own drawings.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Pencil and uni-ball micro for sketching, Winsor & Newton brushes for inking. Sketchbooks and stacks of A4 paper for final artwork. Photoshop for colouring.
Work for The Surfers Journal
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Initially I wanted to be a snooker player and then later, around the age of ten, a cartoonist.
What influence has your background had on your choice of career?
I come from an Asian background, where a career in the arts was not encouraged. Because of this I had to fully commit myself to it and do it early. Only my grandfather took an interest and encouraged me, aged 11, to send my comic strips to the editors of newspapers and publishers of The Beano, and bought me drawing books and art materials.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied fine art painting. This meant always having to present and talk about your work. You get used to criticism and moving on from your failures. Apart from this, we were pretty much left to our own devices.
What were your first jobs?
After collage I worked in the gift shop at The National Gallery and then briefly as a graphic designer, but started illustrating fairly quickly after that.
What in particular helped your development at the start of your career?
Discovering the illustrator Tomi Ungerer. I found his book Testament in the library at college and it really helped me know what I wanted to do. His work appears across all sectors, from children’s books to erotica and is very emotive; always generating a response from laughter to repulsion and many ‘aha’ moments.
When I first started out, Matt Warner at FHM took time to look at my portfolio and give me advice and regular commissions. This helped me become a freelance illustrator.
“Over the years I have learnt that to stay relevant you must stay interested in your own work.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Over the years, I have learnt that to stay relevant you must stay interested in your own work. For ten years, I had a successful career working on the computer, producing vector illustrations, but I wanted to go back to the work I produced in college, with brush and ink. I worried I would lose all my clients, but despite these concerns I had to make that change as this is where my interest lay. I lost clients in advertising, but gained many others.
The biggest change since I started working as an illustrator is social media. Nowadays, so much is done over social media – from promotion to commissioning. You have access to so much work that it can be overwhelming and sometimes crippling. At the same time, you can share work and ideas quickly to a large audience and receive immediate feedback. Like most things, you need to find a balance and remember that everyone is curating and putting their best versions of themselves out there online!
Work by Tomi Ungerer
What’s been your biggest challenge?
It was a challenge to shift in style. I wish I’d had the confidence to do it sooner. Also, generally saying yes to too many projects and not giving enough time to personal projects or simply taking time off to re-energise. I’ve not always been as proactive as I should, chasing projects or clients I’d like to work with, and being more in control of my career path.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes, it’s definitely what I wanted it to be. It is thrilling seeing your work come out in print, up on billboards and in books. It is also brilliant working for yourself, with other creatives and being creative every day.
Old work – digital vectors for The Economist
Dog parenting for The New York Times
What would you like to do next?
As always, next steps would be to produce more personal work and then to find avenues for that to exist. To get more diversity in the application of my illustration. I would also love to do a children’s book.
Could you do this job forever?
I could certainly draw forever, but perhaps not at the speed and number of deadlines I currently have.
Work for The Wall Street Journal
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
It’s good to remember that working for yourself gives you an enormous amount of flexibility in deciding how, when and what you work on. It is easy to forget this when you worry about the feast-or-famine aspect of freelancing, but it is important to think ahead and make sure you are always travelling in the direction you want to go.
Speak to other illustrators, share information, find out how people manage to achieve what they do. Look after your health and make time for creative replenishment. Try to do personal work alongside commissioned work, even if you can only manage a ten-minute project.