Creative Lives — Dundee-based illustrator Scott Balmer on the art of visual problem-solving
For freelance illustrator Scott Balmer, his base in Dundee's thriving cultural scene provides the perfect historical and creative setting for his artistic pursuits. As a freelancer, he enjoys the benefits of choosing what to work on and who to work with, as well as the freedom to pursue his own projects. But how does he stay creatively motivated and maintain a consistent, high-quality output? We talk to Scott about life in Dundee, commissions, his methods for maximising productivity, his various projects and his aspirations for artistic development.
The Guardian, ShortList, TES, Konami Europe, Fast Company
BA Illustration, Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design (2003-2006)
How would you describe what you do?
I may be a freelance illustrator but I kind of see myself as more of a visual problem-solver. You are given a problem which needs to fill a space, while also being able to sit well with the text and, most importantly, being able to visually convey what the narrative is about to the viewer. I create editorial illustrations most of the time, though I have made work for publishing and other creative sectors. I have also exhibited artwork in numerous galleries around the world.
How does your typical working day play out?
I currently work from home, where I usually start at 10am. The first thing I do is to check my emails followed by numerous forms of correspondence such as contacting clients, as well as the odd email to potential new clients and possibly an email to my agent, mixed in with some admin work if needed. Then it’s time to start making things, until about 6pm or beyond, to the point at which I feel that the piece is finished.
“I may be a freelance illustrator but I kind of see myself as more of a visual problem-solver.”
Scott's personal work
How collaborative is your role?
It’s usually just me, myself and I when it comes to collaboration since most commissions only need one person to work on them, especially in the realms of editorial illustration. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t look into collaborating with someone on a project in the future.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Getting a really nice project to work on, when you are pretty much left to your own devices and have the freedom to do whatever you feel fits the brief. Also, being given an interesting story or article that offers a creative challenge. The least enjoyable aspect would be waiting for a reply when you’ve sent roughs over to a client, especially if the deadline they have given you is tight, as it kind of puts you in limbo and can disrupt your schedule. And, of course, chasing late payments – just make sure you never give up as it is your right to your earnings. I can remember chasing a late payment for about a year from a well-known place once, you just have to be polite and keep contacting them about it until it gets sorted.
Scott's 'Infinite Orbs' for METEOR’s My Famicase Exhibition
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Most of the work that I do is usually quick and out of the door fast, so some projects tend to blur into each other, but there was something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and finally got the chance to: putting something in METEOR’s My Famicase Exhibition. It’s an exhibition that happens every year but it was one of those situations where I’d keep hearing about it well after the event, until this year when I got the drop on it. The reason I wanted to be a part of this show was that you get to create a fake game label, which is then exhibited on a famicom cartridge. It may not seem like much, but it was pretty fun putting together a fake game with a little back story and then depicting it in a way that would fit on a small label.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Probably listening to the client’s needs – if you can nail down what they are after then the work should just flow nicely from the initial roughs stage all the way to completion. Also being able to manage time so that you can get the most out of a project without going over the deadline. You don’t need to have a rigid schedule but you do have to make sure that you give yourself enough time to produce the work that can show you at your best.
Scott's commissioned illustration for Prog Magazine
What do you like about working in Dundee?
Dundee is an interesting place, steeped in a rich history of creativity; it is the city where DC Thomson set up comics like the Beano and the Dandy. In fact, the city has a few sculptures from those comics, such as Desperate Dan and Oor Wullie. It is also a place where video games have played a large role in its heritage, with DMA Design who created Lemmings and other titles before going on to make the Grand Theft Auto games. They are now known as Rockstar North and have moved to Edinburgh. There’s even a small sculpture just across the road from my old art school, which features Lemmings climbing up a structure. It’s nice to see the city acknowledging a newer industry like that. Also, with the V & A Dundee opening up I think its going to get a bit more interesting for the city within the creative sector.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Nothing really big as I tend to just do personal work on a few illustrations, though I do treat the work I do for exhibitions more as personal projects, since it gives me the chance to experiment more.
Scott's contribution to The Fake Theme Parks Art Show
What tools do you use most for your work?
I mostly work within a digital environment these days, where the devices I use are a MacBook pro, a Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet, an iPad pro which I do all my roughs on and also Procreate which I use for some final illustrations.
What helps you when you’re working?
I’ve recently been listening to Bob Ross in the background while I work – there’s something about his soothing voice and it’s nice to have someone else working away on his happy little trees and mountains, also doing something creative. It’s a nice distraction but at the same time something that can keep me motivated.
Scott's work for Gallery 1988's Idiot Box Art Show
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
It’s pretty funny but when I was really young I wanted to be an inventor – I can’t remember what made me want to go down that path! I remember making drawings of flying cars with weird attachments on them and other contraptions. I suppose that, in some ways, this has come true; I get to make stuff up that doesn’t really exist. But it’s more of a whimsical thing compared to actually making gadgets and devices that can change the world. As I got older, I shifted to wanting to be an animator, since that was the only profession that stood out where I could draw for a living. I’d say that, in general, it was always something which involved art or being creative.
Scott's 'Future City'
How useful have your studies been in your career? Were there any transferable learnings that you took with you?
I feel that you tend to grow more outside of an educational environment, as you are pretty much flung into the world and have to survive by learning and adapting. When I graduated I was drawing scratchy pen and ink drawings which eventually evolved into what I do now – you just have to keep pushing yourself to go beyond what you thought you could do. If it takes you in a different direction, go for it! Having said that, the way I work with colour has played a large part in my work, which started with relief and lino printing while I was at university. It made me pick colours based on what would sit well with the previous colour choice when it came to building up an artwork – that’s why I always start with getting the background colour right at the beginning and then play about with it further depending on the type of mood or feeling that I’m after with the illustration.
“You just have to keep pushing yourself to go beyond what you thought you could do. If it takes you in a different direction, go for it!”
What were your initial steps after graduating? Did you find your feet quickly?
My first job in the field was to make a small illustration for the Guardian’s Family section, many moons ago. It was only a couple of inches tall but it felt as if it were ten feet tall when I got the chance to see it in the actual paper.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I think it would be avoiding getting complacent; once things are going well you start to forget that you still need to do all the things you were doing when you first started to gain interest in your work. That might take the form of lapsing on promotional stuff or even slipping a bit on doing the work. You’ve got to stay motivated and get into some form of routine to ensure you’re always putting out your best, even when you may not feel like it. It’s the doing – thats the main thing that matters.
Scott's designs for Gallery 1988’s Postcard Art Show
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to do a picture book at some point, or some concept and character design for a film or video game. I also wouldn’t mind doing some art directing. It would be nice to experience the other side of illustration commission while also making sure to keep the identity as visually cohesive as possible. Though I think I’d go all J. Jonah Jameson demanding pictures of Spider-Man in the end.
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so, though who knows what the future might bring! Hopefully I will always be working away creatively in some shape or form.
Scott's work for the 12×12 art show by Spoke Art
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Work hard, but not to the point that it can affect your health – nothing is worth putting yourself into an early grave over. Don’t be afraid to work on more than one style as it could open new avenues and push you into territories you may not have considered previously. I don’t mean that you should become a jack of all trades but you should develop your style to a high standard to the point where you can make the best artwork for the job.