First Hand — “It takes work to get work” – illustrator Robbie Cathro looks back on his first year since graduating
Graduating with a first-class honours in illustration from the University of the West of England last year, Robbie Cathro has been based in Bristol ever since. His lively portfolio, full of evocative scenes and characters, has grown to include work for clients such as Airbnb, The Natural History Museum and Anorak Magazine. But setting up life as a professional illustrator has come with its own set of twists, turns and triumphs. Here he shares his experiences, and some guiding words of reassurance for students headed towards the end of their course.
My main focus since graduating has been to take the time to set myself up as a freelance illustrator. I came out of uni knowing that this was going to take up a good amount of time, so I’ve been taking manageable steps to build myself up, until I earn enough to live on. I found a lovely studio, where I make work and bounce ideas off my friends. I’ve taken part in illustration fairs, curated a joint exhibition called ‘FUN’ and been lucky enough to grow my portfolio with a number of commissions. Working with Anorak Magazine and Studio Anorak was a highlight – both were real dream briefs, and gave me an insight into the sort of work I would love to keep being commissioned.
Find your feet
I’ve been trying to create opportunities and explore my work through different outlets, to understand where I can see myself fitting. For example, together with the studio I’m starting a website called Sketchbook Club Online, which will act as a resource for artists of all levels. It will feature draw-along videos, tutorials, material comparisons and articles from various artists explaining how they like to approach things. Discovering how you like to make work is a continuous thing – you pick up, learn and create new techniques as you develop as an artist, and your working method grows as a result. I’d learnt a whole bunch about myself, my working methods and style at uni, and these skills have stuck with me. It’s such a great moment when you find a way or a material that just fits.
Stay busy and be realistic
It definitely isn’t easy, but I knew it wouldn’t be. You regularly doubt yourself as an artist, and end up feeling like you’re a failure if you haven’t created work for three days. It helps to understand that becoming a professional freelance illustrator doesn’t happen immediately. Knowing this has meant I’ve been able to set myself realistic and achievable goals. It’s good to try and keep yourself busy in the first 12 months and continue the momentum from university, otherwise you can risk feeling glum, and it can be difficult to motivate yourself with your work. Contact potential clients, keep in touch with people, apply for competitions and fairs – you might surprise yourself when you get something out of it!
Client trial and error
Dealing with tricky clients was difficult to begin with, but you learn through experience. Whilst the majority of people I’ve worked with are absolutely lovely, there will be people that use you for information or never reply or pay you for finished work. It’s good to be honest, confident with your terms and conditions, persistent with emailing and make sure you know all of the information needed for each job.
“For a while I thought that doing a degree show would mean that people would know who I was, but if anything, it’s just the starting point.”
Think beyond university
While I don’t regret what I made as a student, I wish I’d focused more on projects or ways of working I wanted to go into after uni. There were some projects I felt I had to complete because it was the done thing, even though I didn’t find the source material inspiring. However, these projects allowed me to understand what I wanted to make. I’d advise others to stay aware of where you heart is telling you to go, keep your options open and listen to critique and suggestions. Reflecting on my graduate show, researching and contacting venues, curating a large space, organising a group of 60 illustrators were all things I’d never done before. Finding the confidence and skills to do these things was rewarding, and these skills has been so useful since graduating.
It takes work to get work
Nothing happens on its own, and it takes work to get work. For a while I definitely thought that doing a degree show would mean that people would know who I was. Following your favourite artists on social media can make you believe you’ll have a perfect illustrator life post-graduation. But you need to remember that they too started somewhere, and worked hard to get to where they are (and did jobs they didn’t want to do). If anything, the graduate show is just the starting point. Commissions and offers might fall into your lap, but there’s also a chance that they won’t, so there’s no harm in producing work and contacting people you’d like to work for to start making things happen.
I wish I was already living solely from freelance work, but right now I work a part-time job that pays the bills and is flexible enough to spend a good chunk of the week on my art. Pretty much all of my friends who graduated with me are in the same boat, and we know we need this work in order to invest in materials, printing, art fairs and exhibitions. And eventually, with enough hard work, the illustration side of life will outweigh the other!