Creative Lives — Talent, perseverance and luck: R Fresson on the art of freelance illustration
“It’s lucky I ended up doing illustration,” shares Hampshire-based Ruby Fresson, “I was pretty sure I wasn’t cut out for anything else.” With a modesty that vastly undersells her talent, it’s been far more than luck that has won Ruby (illustrating as R Fresson) so many covetable clients. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2012, The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker have all called on her unique and recognisable style. Working with fine-liner pens and a light box from her home studio, she takes inspiration from early 20th century references and ’50s colour palettes to create curious comics and scenic compositions. Formerly working as Robert G Fresson, Ruby has also adopted personal changes into her professional life, after recently transitioning gender. She describes the process of taking on a different name as an artist, her daily working process, and how persistence always prevails when the going gets tough.
Visiting Illustration Lecturer, Falmouth University (2012-2013) and Kingston University (2017)
Part-time Lecturer for BA Illustration, Plymouth College of Art (2013-2015)
MA Visual Communication, Royal College of Art (2010-2012)
Printmaking Placement, Kyoto City University of the Arts (3-month placement, 2011)
BA Illustration, Falmouth University (2007-2010)
The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Monocle, GQ, Greenpeace, Wired, MIT Tech Review, Sunday Times, De Volkskrant
How would you describe what you do?
I make hand-drawn, digitally coloured illustrations, mostly for newspapers and magazines. It involves a lot of sitting at a desk, looking at a computer or at a piece of paper on a light-box. I will communicate with clients and define what they want me to do, then try my best to realise it.
What does a typical working day look like?
I currently have a small studio in a room on the other side of the hall in my house, so it takes me about five seconds to get there from bed. This being said, I still don’t typically start work until late morning.
I check emails over breakfast and update my calendar. I keep to a strict timetable so I know what I’ll be working on for any given day, and stick to one project at a time, unless I can’t avoid it.
I then often work flat out (with coffee breaks) at my computer desk or drawing, until whatever I need to do is done. I spend a large portion of every day by myself in front of my computer. Sometimes I finish at 3pm, sometimes it’s 3am.
Ruby’s drawing desk
What do you like about working in Hampshire?
At the moment I work here for the sake of practicality and comfort. It is where I grew up and my parents are here. It’s homely and I can live cheaply. I don’t really participate in the local creative scene, apart from occasionally having a coffee in the town’s gallery.
I am not much of a judge in this sense, but I would not recommend it as a creative place. There is beautiful countryside and it is peaceful; but not full of young, vibrant creatives. It’s a place to move to if you have money, you like Waitrose and want some nice schools to send your kids to. I had a lovely childhood here.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I think my style of drawing is redolent of early twentieth century comics and graphic arts, which seems to appeal to some clients, and I often get sent briefs with a historical element. In truth it’s hard to say how I am found. On the internet I suppose and through my agent, JSR. One job leads to the next and thus it proliferates.
How collaborative is your work?
To me, my work is not particularly collaborative; I am the only one who is physically making the illustration and taking responsibility for how it looks. Some decisions are made by art directors and editors, but as this relationship is hierarchically top-down – rather than mutual – it doesn’t feel like collaboration to me.
I still have to work with people, and have learnt how to communicate in a professional and clear way, but this happens almost exclusively through email. I like it this way. I am happy to be left to my own devices.
Jews in France – New York Times, 2018
Laughing – The Guardian, 2017
Bill Bryson – Sunday Times Magazine, 2015
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect is seeing a drawing through from scribble to final. I particularly like working on the light box, making an inked tracing. I can turn on music and let my analytical brain fall away, and just enjoy making the lines appealing.
Communication, organisation and finances used to be abhorrent to me, and I neglected and feared them. But over time they have become manageable and almost enjoyable. Filling in my calendar with work commitments is now a pleasure. I can’t say so much for my tax return.
The greatest perk of being a freelance illustrator (if you’re in regular work) is that it allows for a very good work-life balance. There are times when the work overflows and I cannot be sociable, but these episodes are the exception, and I find compensation in having plenty of time to travel and see my friends. The balance feels just right!
“When making an inked tracing, I can turn on music and let my analytical brain fall away, and just enjoy making the lines appealing.”
What has been your most exciting recent projects?
My new book, Flying Colours, is all about flags. It was a lot of fun to research and study all these little oblongs of colour that mean so much to so many people. It was also the longest-form project I have ever taken on.
I’ve also had the pleasure to work on two comics for The New York Times Magazine over the past couple of years. My first, The Nonsuch Dive, is all about a record-breaking deep-sea dive in 1934 in Bermuda. The second was about a monument in Manhattan, dedicated to a little boy who died in the area in 1797. Both projects required quite a lot of in-depth research and I really enjoyed flexing my comic-making muscles.
Luge – New York Times Magazine, 2018
What skills are essential to your job?
Essentially I have to be able to read something and distill its meaning into an image. Simultaneously I need to make that image unambiguous (unless ambiguity is the order of the day), whilst slotting it into my own visual language.
This is ordinary to me now, but it is quite a challenge, especially when I am only given a few hours to go from reading the copy to the final illustration. I also think having an ability to imagine how things ought to look without reference is handy, and a middling familiarity with Photoshop’s myriad functions. Oh, and being comfortable enough to be by myself.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Pens: Uni-ball PIN fine-liners are my pens of choice (I work with 0.05 up to 0.8), I also like the 0.38 Muji Gel Ink Pen in black (it has a slightly different flow to it which is useful for detail work). Paper: Regular old bog-standard printer paper. Light-box: A wooden Argos one. For digital work I use Photoshop for colouring and adding texture and shadows, plus InDesign and Illustrator (though not to the same degree).
Nonsuch Dive – New York Times, 2016
Nonsuch Dive – New York Times, 2016
Nonsuch Dive – New York Times, 2016
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I first got excited about a potential career around age six, when I realised you could make animated films, like Disney! I drew loads of pictures of stories that I imagined would eventually become feature-length animations. When I found out the animators don’t get to decide the story, I wanted to be a director.
I drifted through wanting to be a hairdresser, busker and an architect, and actually decided which A-levels to take based on architecture course requirements. But in the end I got on to the Falmouth Art Foundation course (by the skin of my teeth) and realised illustration is what I wanted all along.
“Three elements make a freelance illustration career possible: talent, perseverance and luck.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied BA Illustration at Falmouth and MA Visual Communication at the RCA. Both courses directly affected my work. The BA was all about learning the ropes and getting a reasonably professional portfolio together. The MA was about exploding and analysing my drawing and story-telling abilities. The MA was unpleasant in this regard, and I found solace in my term away in Japan, where things were more practical. I returned to London resolved to make drawings that told stories, so in the end the MA had a strengthening effect.
What were your first jobs?
I worked at a garden centre sweeping leaves, in a T-shirt shop, and as a life-model for about five years. I’ve also done data entry, bar work, festival wrist-banding and tried really, really hard to get a job at Sainsbury’s, but failed the interview twice. It’s lucky I ended up doing illustration because I was pretty sure I wasn’t cut out for anything else.
Trump in a Tree – Guardian, 2016
Zarqa Nawaz – Sunday Times Magazine, 2015
Was there a particular step that helped you at the start of your career?
I think it was getting onto YCN’s roster of illustrators. That put my work in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise have seen it. It led to work with The New York Times, which in turn led to projects with The Guardian, helping to establish me as someone who can do editorial illustration.
The process was slow, and at every juncture I was unconvinced anything that important was really happening; it all felt so unstable!
You recently changed your name and the pronoun you use to refer to yourself – has this had an impact on your work or experience of freelancing?
Phew! So this is a big question. I am Ruby and I am a girl. It is true that I have been illustrating as Robert G. Fresson since I began, and have only last month decided to change my name to R. Fresson, and switch to female pronouns. That’s because I have been going through a male-to-female gender transition for the past couple of years, and it was getting silly to have my professional life reflect a past, rather than a present sense of myself.
Nobody in my life calls me Robert anymore, and I am surrounded by supportive people who make an effort to see me as female. It just felt like time to align things in my professional life. The response so far has been positive; the bigger challenge is to get Google to forget about my previous incarnation. Robert G. Fresson still gets better search results than R. Fresson. I know it will take a long while for the new to overtake the old.
Amiable Child – New York Times, 2017
Amiable Child – New York Times, 2017
What would you like to do next?
I started a series of comics (initially in the back of Avaunt magazine) about a pair of youths called Esther and Chai who go on surreal adventures. I want to make Esther and Chai into a proper thing, make more books, do a cover for The New Yorker. But more than all of this, I want it to just keep happening the way it is, I’m not ready to stop.
Could you do this job forever?
This is great for the foreseeable future and beyond, but there are other things I see myself doing; cabinet-making or counselling.
I had some wonderful experiences lecturing and tutoring in illustration at Plymouth College of Art and Kingston University, so I could probably do more of that too.
Esther and Chai
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Having tutored in higher education over the last few years, I am keenly aware of how much better informed students are than I was at their age, or indeed am now. If that is anything to go by, then their generation will soon eclipse mine and they will laugh in the face of any advice I presume to give them.
With all that said, my experience has been that three elements make a freelance illustration career possible: talent, perseverance and luck. Woven into these three things is a subconscious self-belief, which holds it all together when the going gets rough. Of these elements, perseverance is the only one you can control.
I say, make a portfolio with a consistent style and clear indications of application (demonstrate your talent), keep making work and showing it to people (persevere) and take opportunities if they arise (luck).