Creative Lives — Illustrator Sarah Maycock talks starting out, clients and getting fan mail from Sir David Attenborough
Hastings-based illustrator Sarah Haycock graduated from Kingston’s Illustration Animation course in 2011 and was fast named one of It’s Nice That’s Graduates. She’s since worked on everything from textiles to portraits to music videos and maps, and has even taken a brush to Dulux’s old English sheepdog. Broad, inky brushstrokes and light gestural sweeps are hallmarks of her work; an intuitive but informed touch that allows her to captures her subject’s character with charm and conviction. Up to her elbows in blue ink, painting whales for the Natural History Museum, Sarah talked us through how she got started, navigating the world of clients and why B&Q is the best place to buy brushes.
Hastings, East Sussex
Liberty, Sony, Pentagram, Walker Books, The Natural History Museum, Marks & Spencer, Shangri-La Hotel, Waitrose Magazine, Conran Design, Tribeca Holdings, Onefinestay, Laurence King
BA Illustration Animation, Kingston University (2008–2011)
Sarah Maycock (Photography by Chiron Cole)
How would you describe what you do?
I am a full-time, self-employed illustrator, and have been since I graduated. I am my own company; the problem with that is that the more your work gets seen, the more jobs you’ll (hopefully!) get offered. If you’re a business and your workload increases, you can employ more staff, but I can’t increase my output. I’m just me.
I’ve been lucky enough to work on all sorts of jobs, from textile design and music videos to maps and portraits. But 99.9% of the time, what my clients require are 2D images. I’ve worked directly for individuals and for much larger companies where I’m a very small cog in the machine. Both come with pros and cons. With an individual, you develop a close relationship and can have much more freedom. Larger companies will often use my drawings in more unusual ways: hoardings, large light box displays, luxury books, 3D installations – there was even talk of some of my work being turned into a company umbrella. This is fun, but the downside is that work often has to be ok’ed by an onslaught of people, and all sorts of boxes have to be ticked that you didn’t even know existed.
What does a typical working day look like?
My studio is a ten-minute walk from my home, along the seafront. I used to work from home but I realised it would be healthier to see people every day. I think a lot of illustrators have this issue. I have a room in a building with a real mix of creative people: animators, ceramicists, photographers, illustrators and a taxidermist.
Over time I’ve learnt that it’s better to work on one job a day, and to break large projects into daily chunks – it feels good to arbitrarily tick something off a list. It also means that if something doesn’t go to plan, I’ve only lost a day.
The dream is to keep to 9 to 5 hours but it all depends on deadlines – if you need to find more time, then you can. Parts of year are also busier than others, especially before the holidays, when clients want things wrapped up before they leave.
“I definitely look towards artists for inspiration more than illustrators. I try not to think of them as two completely separate entities.”
Work for the Natural History Museum, 2017
How do projects usually come about?
I’m usually employed by a design agency via my agent, Handsome Frank. They’re extremely understanding, always on my side and are very well respected; clients trust them and who they represent. I think people come to me for something that feels classic that brings an element of texture and ‘the handmade’ to things that could be quite corporate. I try to keep character, looseness and an energy in the gestures, which I think appeals to people. Everyone is so Photoshop-literate now that I feel my strength lies in my images not looking Photoshopped.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I spend a lot of time in my studio in front of a computer, whether it’s editing in Photoshop, or looking at reference imagery. I do less drawing out and about – often there just isn’t enough time. I’ve just done two pop-up books for Walker Books about Barcelona and Florence; I wish I could have done the research in person, but the space between finding out I had the job and starting was too slim to squeeze in a trip. Maybe I still need to go and just double check that my drawings were authentic!
How collaborative is your work?
Sometimes I’ll work with animators if a client wants elements of my work to move, but other than that I’m usually a team of one! I’d love to collaborate more, there’s something about working with other people that simultaneously takes the pressure off and puts it back on, which drives you in a way that doesn’t seem to happen when I’m working alone.
‘Bear’ (2011), completed as part of Sarah’s studies, became a hugely popular print at the Pick Me Up show at Somerset House in 2012
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect has to be seeing the work out in the real world. I was sent a letter by Sir David Attenborough after he received prints of some drawings I’d made for the The Times to accompany an interview about Frozen Planet. It doesn’t really get any better than that. I love knowing that my work is important to other people. I like that my images enhance communication, enjoyment and understanding.
The least enjoyable is that I think I suffer with imposter syndrome and often worry that even though I’ve done a similar job before, I might not be able to do it again. At times my stress levels are quite high, especially if I get challenging feedback or I just can’t crack something. About once a year I reach saturation point and have a little break down. I think I underestimate how much it can wear you down to constantly put something you’ve made forward to potentially be shot down over and over again.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Definitely the Natural History Museum job I’m currently working on – I almost can’t believe I’m doing it. My work will be experienced in a totally new way and seen by a different audience. I also worked for Dulux a few months ago; if only I could have told my 23-year-old self that in five years time, I’d be painting the Dulux dog…
Christmas card design for Taylerreid, 2015
Work for Smythson, 2016
Illustrations for Siladora silk scarves, 2015
What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to draw goes without saying! You also have to be pretty resilient when it comes to feedback. For every client who comes back with “this is perfect, better than we imagined, you can go home now” there’s one who sends “although you have done exactly as we asked, we feel that it’s really not working, here’s a new brief for you to work on over the weekend” and you just have to suck it up and approach it with fresh eyes.
Would you say your work allows for a good work-life balance?
Sometimes I have to work far more than I’d like to, but it’s the price you pay for being able to take time off too. Being an illustrator seems to result in a lot of sitting down and bad posture, so I try and exercise to counteract that. I have also exacerbated a previous shoulder injury from overuse with drawing and using a graphics tablet. Glamorous, I know.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A new 27” iMac (my last one died mid-project – back up your work, kids!); Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet; Epson GT-20000 A3 scanner; Huion A3 lightbox; Photoshop and InDesign.
I’ll also use all sorts of watercolours, inks, and acrylic, (mainly Windsor & Newton, Daler Rowney, Dr. Ph. Martin’s and Quink), a mix of heavyweight cartridge paper and watercolour paper, masking fluid, candles for wax resist, a plethora of brushes, (especially Chinese brushes from art and hardware shops – that’s a tip of mine: buy cheap and weird brushes from B&Q if you want to make surprising textures on a larger scale without spending your savings), refillable brush pens (for drawing out and about), a Platinum Carbon Desk Fountain Pen, Caran d’Ache watercolour pencils and Neocolor watersoluble wax crayons, and a generic dip-pen handle and drawing nibs (I love it when these go scratchy after a while). I used to make my own very rustic sketchbooks, but now I use Moleskines.
“About once a year I reach saturation point and have a little break down. I think I underestimate how much it can wear you down to put something you’ve made forward to be shot down.”
Character design for ‘Luka and the Fire of Life’, a novel by Salman Rushdie, 2010
‘Deerhound’, featured in the Pick Me Up show at Somerset House, 2013
‘Dachshund’, featured in the Pick Me Up show at Somerset House, 2013
‘Whippet’, featured in the Pick Me Up show at Somerset House, 2013
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a pianist from the age of about four, but a teenage strop took me down the art route instead. What used to be my hobby (drawing) and what I thought would be my career (music) just switched roles. Both my grandparents and my mother were in the arts. I watched them work, surrounded by their paintings – I’m sure I absorbed a lot of it by osmosis. I definitely look towards artists for inspiration more than illustrators. I try not to think of them as two completely separate entities.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Oh, 100% useful. The course at Kingston was extremely good at preparing us for life after university; from things like making a website, thinking about how invoices and payment work to how you might put together a dummy book for a publisher.
What were your first jobs?
I started my first job before I left university – a book cover for Random House. I remember a graduate telling me that everyone hates the work they produce on their first job. They were right and it was not a success. But despite it technically being a failure I don’t regret it at all, because I realised that the world does not end if you make bad work.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
At the end of my degree, I had little to no confidence in my future as an illustrator, but I was persuaded to enter the It’s Nice That Graduates by a friend and brilliant designer, Charlotte Heal, and was chosen as one of 12 of the most promising graduates of 2011. This gave me a leg up and meant a lot of people saw my work, including by Pick Me Up, the graphic arts fair at Somerset House and I was chosen as one of the ‘Selects’ in 2012. On a practical level it also forced me to work out how to get work framed and how to produce, pack and post prints. I’ve used the same companies every since. That’s where my agency first spotted me and how I got one of my first hefty jobs.
An early painting by Sarah, aged three
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
The hefty job I mentioned was for design company Heavenly, who were working on the branding for a new property development called Fitzroy Place. They were quite brave because they asked me to make work for them unlike anything I’d ever done before. They said “do you think you could do that sort of thing?” and then trusted me when I said I could. Normally clients seem uneasy if they can’t see similar work you’ve done in the past. I’ve had so many jobs since then that reference the work I made for Heavenly, so it really broadened my portfolio.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
You need to be reliable and able to come up with the goods. I’ve also had to learn a lot technically about printing and the way I use Photoshop evolves all the time.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
No matter how many I do, the doubt and hesitation before starting a new job remains the same. It’s also very challenging sending work that answers the brief which you’re not happy with, but normally this is more of an emotional link.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I actually had no idea what being an illustrator would be like. I wasn’t 100% sure it was what I was going to do. As a student, I’d have weeks for a project and put off making any decisions, but now I might only have a few days.
“I realised that the world does not end if you make bad work.”
A painting for Dulux Heritage, 2016
A painting for Dulux Heritage, 2016
What would you like to do next?
It’s hard to know because I never know what job might be round the corner. I’m lucky that I get to work on a lot of enjoyable, varied jobs so I’m happy for that to continue.
Could you do this job forever?
I would like to be able to do this forever. I could live anywhere and still do this job, which not many people can say.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’d love to see my work used in ways I haven’t thought of yet. I loved doing live action painting for one of Imogen Heap’s music videos, so more of that please. I’d also like to move towards doing my own work alongside commercial work. It’s hard sometimes to feel enthused about making something for yourself when you’ve had a difficult day working on a job and want to throw in the towel.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
I think your work just has to be seen, whether that’s entering competitions, exhibitions, self publishing, art fairs, collaborating, starting drawing events, painting on your own clothes, whatever. When someone looks you up, make it really easy for them to find you. And once the jobs come rolling in, make a professional-looking invoice, and don’t number the first one you send as ‘01’ – I started at ‘12’ so the client didn’t know I’d never been paid before.