Creative Lives — Illustrator Sonny Ross tells us why “drawing is like dessert”
Manchester-based illustrator Sonny Ross is always up for a challenge: “It’s thrilling to say yes to something and have no idea how you will pull it off.” A quick glance at his portfolio will tell you that this freelance creative thrives off the freedom his role allows him. Working on a range of clients (everyone from Google to the BBC, The Guardian and more) the ever-fluctuating variety of briefs sees him tackle serious news pieces to more lighthearted spots. Here, Sonny extols the benefits of working in Manchester, overcoming initial anxiety about not using ‘proper’ tools, dealing with rejection and why drawing isn’t necessarily an essential skill to have.
Print Technician, Manchester (2014–2016)
Google, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, Polygon, Narratively, BBC, Southern Poverty Law Center, The World Today, Waitrose and many more
BA Illustration, Birmingham City University, (2011–2014)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance illustrator, which affords me the opportunity to work for whomever I like – from editorial work to food, children’s books, corporate and independent. One day, I could be working on a really serious news piece and the next could be some light-hearted design work, I like that part of my work.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I work from my studio and office in sunny Manchester, which is where most of the work gets made. Most days begin with admin work, making sure the bills are getting paid – the boring bits basically – then the drawing is like dessert. I try to keep to normal working hours because I have a life that I sometimes like to live, though occasionally with international clients I work ‘the night shift’ to make a deadline work. But for the most part I’m drawing and listening to the same three or four albums over and over, trying to induce some kind of work trance.
What do you like about working in the part of the UK you’re based in?
Manchester is wonderful, truly. I have friends who live in London who scrape to get by because the cost of living is outrageous. I suppose I’m very lucky that my job is pretty much all online; I could live on the moon and still do this if the WiFi was strong enough. Manchester is affordable, but more than that, it has such a vibrant community of artists and a great attitude to those working in the industry. I can’t imagine ever moving from here to be honest.
“My job is pretty much all online; I could live on the moon and still do this if the WiFi was strong enough.”
Narratively- New York Times Crossword
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I send a lot of emails. It usually comes down to me seeing someone's work in a publication, then after some detective work, getting in touch with the art director who commissioned it. I send over a few examples of work I believe would work well for their publication and with luck, I'll get a reply and a job.
Freelancing is just applying for 30 jobs a week hoping something pays off, but I suppose these days it’s easier with return clients and a stronger portfolio than when I started out. Also I now have an representation by Agency Rush, so clients I might not have had access to before are seeing my work, which takes some of the load off in terms of promotion.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The obvious freelancer issues like late payments; having a late payment can absolutely wound your whole operation and be really harmful. I don’t enjoy admin, but without it, this plate spinning show would be even more of a mess. Anything that isn’t drawing the thing is the worst part.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I did a series of illustrations for Polygon, a video games media and news website. I do a lot of editorial work but doing it for video game stories was so different and new for me. It allowed me to explore how my voice and tone would translate to an entirely niche audience.
I didn’t want it to look like fan art so I said early on that I wouldn’t draw any characters, but treat it like any other news outlet. I’m really glad they enjoyed the work I made because I loved making it. And it wasn’t long that they had me back for another, so I hope that keeps going.
Challenge is exciting, and new arenas are beginning to utilise illustration as part of their design, so we’re certainly in exciting times for illustration.
Steve Gaynor on Nazi Punching and Wolfenstein 2 for Polygon
Productivity and mental health - personal sketch
What skills are essential to your job?
I’m probably meant to say drawing but I don’t believe that for a second. Drawing is to illustration what a camera is to photography, it’s just a given. Whether you create realistic portraits or naive ‘doodles’ the skill resides in the voice, the thing that makes it yours.
If I was to be really boring, I would say time management is key, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by a long list of deadlines while you’re just there eating crisps watching TV and wondering how it got like this. Breaking your time into manageable chunks is certainly a skill.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
I just finished illustrating a book called Birdfall that my friend Robert Steventon wrote. I had a slow couple of weeks a while back so I created a little project for myself, so I was doing more with my day than sending emails. Other than that, I might have to wait until I have a quiet period again to do some personal work. But I frequently post personal work and ideas to social media, many lead to nothing but some develop over time.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Since 2014, I have worked pretty much exclusively on the Procreate app for iPad. I used to use a tablet and desktop computer, but with the iPad I can work wherever, it just feels natural to draw that way. I think I used to feel anxious about not using ‘proper’ tools like Photoshop but to be honest, nobody can tell unless I tell them. So I don’t see this process changing anytime soon. Also the app is like a fiver, and does everything I’ve ever needed to do – from a whole children’s book to a Google Doodle. I guess it doesn’t matter how you make the image as long as you make it.
Commute; and workplace hostility – personal work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a history teacher. But when the time came to choose what to do at university, I chose illustration. I had always drawn and I’m going to be honest and put it down to ego. As a kid I would get compliments on my sketches and that felt good. Nobody ever really raved about an essay about post-reformation parliament in the same way so I chose illustration.
What influence have your studies had on your career?
I went into university with a very narrow view of what illustration was. That was corrected pretty quickly; being surrounded by incredible people with amazing skills beyond my own really opened my eyes. The course itself felt lacking in some areas, where I ended up learning more from my fellow students, but maybe that’s the point of university.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Yeah, it’s pretty spot on. However the gritty details of freelancing were learned post-graduation. It’s not enough to be a good illustrator, you need to know how to handle yourself, how to talk to people, and make connections.
“Drawing is to illustration what a camera is to photography, it’s just a given.”
How were your first couple of years after graduating?
I got a job at a pub immediately. I did what a lot of students do after uni, which is to say that I was a recent graduate. Clients can be a bit put off by this. I then worked as a print master and later a print technician and book binder. Then it became part-time as I started to get more illustration gigs. Finally I was able to go full-time as a freelancer. My first real gig was for OKIDO magazine, a children’s activity book. It was really fun, even after all these years, I would probably work for them again.
What did you find hardest at the beginning?
Knowing who to contact for work. How to present myself to directors and general day-to-day things. It felt like my first year was just constantly reaching out to people and getting nothing back. That can be really hard for some graduates and many give up, and to be honest I don’t blame them. When the only constant you experience is rejection, that can be a lot to overcome.
Have you made any significant or memorable mistakes along the way that you’ve grown from?
I was once on a call and got a director’s name wrong...I had to eat my phone on the spot.
Google Doodle celebrating the 180th birthday of Sir William Henry Perkin
What would you like to do next?
I’m working on a mural soon, which is very different for me, but very exciting. So, long term I want to be continually surprised. I love most jobs that come in, but sometimes it’s thrilling to say yes to something and have no idea how you will pull it off.
Could you do this job forever?
No. I’ll retire and become a handyman. I’ll always draw but I think a time will come when either the job or the client base will have to change pace.
Found Hand – personal work
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Talk to other illustrators, and ask for advice. You’ll learn a lot about the industry and with that, you’ll be taken seriously. Prepare to work very hard for a while – it will cool off, but early on just keeping gaining experience and getting your voice heard. But my best advice would be to turn off at 5pm. Working yourself to death isn’t cool and nobody will thank you for it. The ‘struggling artist’ vibe is exhausting and worst of all, it makes you super boring. Just don’t be boring.