Creative Lives — Illustrator Stephen Maurice Graham: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but drawing really filled a void”
It was only after losing a well-paid admin job that Stephen Maurice Graham decided to give a career in illustration a shot. Having always doodled at work and built a strong aesthetic knowledge from his studies in history of art, it took the confidence of someone close to him to help him see his own potential. Now seven years down the line, Stephen has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest brands, from Coca-Cola to Nike, and has learnt many a lesson in adhering to brand guidelines (never break a Coke swoosh!) Here Stephen talks process, batting off insecurities and dreams of one day seeing his own weekly comic published in a national newspaper.
Stephen Maurice Graham
Samsung, CNN, Washington Post, Google, Coca-Cola, Nike
Various administrative roles in offices
BA English & History of Art, Queens University Belfast (2002–2005)
Stephen’s workspace, at home in Belfast
How would you describe what you do?
I’d describe my job as a process of turning an amorphous idea or concept into a visual, to fit a variety of functions. It could be for promotion and marketing or just for the amusement of other dum-dums on the internet who share my sense of humour.
The work itself first involves roughing out these concepts in a sketchbook. Typically at this stage the image can go through multiple revisions, then I send the roughs to the client and we talk over the idea. I probably spend over half my day in front of the computer, but I still draw everything by hand before moving to tablet for inking and colours.
I always felt that I wasted a lot of time in my mid-twenties, as I never had this pegged as my career. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do, but when I started drawing it really filled a void; there’s a feeling of elation when I’m drawing. It’s an often surprising and (creatively, not financially) rewarding career.
What does a typical working day look like?
Myself and my wife have just had a baby, but I try to keep normal office hours of 10am to 6.30pm. This pace means I don’t burn out as easily as I did in the past when I’d stay up until 2am. It also means I have a tonne of personal projects on the back burner.
I work from home in a converted spare room. I’m here 90% of the time, but I like to get out for a run at lunch with the dog and move around a bit. From time to time I go out to meet clients and I really love that, it’s a chance to convey ideas and share your passion for the project.
There’s a lot of administration to do in between the fun drawing bits so that probably eats half a day a week – keeping on top of invoices, client meetings, website stuff. At the minute I’m working on a new comic book I’ve written in between client work; I’m determined to have it done by 2018!
“I didn’t go to art school; I did it by myself with all the mistakes that ensued. It was a steep learning curve.”
Work for Nike Westbrook
Stephen’s work for Coca-Cola
Stephen’s work for Coca-Cola
Stephen’s work for Coca-Cola
Stephen’s work for Coca-Cola
Work for Samsung
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Things sometimes come out of the blue. I was recently contacted by a company in South Korea, which was so exciting, as it makes the world seem at once really small and really huge. Of course it’s down to the power of the internet, and because illustration doesn’t typically involve words it can be understood anywhere. But the majority of work comes from marketing myself to clients with portfolio viewings at agencies and emailing art directors. I make sure I’m right for the job by researching who I’m pitching to.
How collaborative is your work?
When working for a client it’s always a collaborative affair, they are guiding voice throughout the process. Over the years I’ve got to collaborate more directly with some of my peers, for example I recently worked on an animation concept with Andy Baker. Taking direction from him was really interesting; discovering his thinking behind the concept, and what needed to realise his vision.
“With time and experience, I've become confident in what I can do and deliver. Everyone feels like a phoney sometimes.”
I typically work with art directors on editorial pieces, or with agencies for larger commercial work. Sometimes I’ll be asked to speak about my work or it can spin off in entirely unexpected directions, like making key frames for animations.
What is the hardest aspect of your job?
It can be hard when things don’t work out, sometimes a cool-sounding job will fall through or something I’ve been working on for a few days doesn’t turn out the way I’d envisioned. You can beat yourself up, so it’s good to meet up with people who do the same job and vent sometimes. I’m trying to get better with my work-life balance but, like any freelancer, you’ll often find yourself working harder and longer than you should.
An illustration for Time Magazine
‘What’s the WiFi’ comic
Work for Vice
Character sketches from Stephen’s sketchbook
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
One of the most exciting projects was working with Matt Curtis Studio MM and animator Josep Bernaus Valls on an animation for CNN this year. Matt gave me free reign to put my personality and style into the whole thing. My tasks included character design, storyboards and scene planning, which I meticulously timed, making sure the visual and audio gags landed and the tone remained consistent.
What skills are essential to your job?
The easy way to answer this question is to say “Be good at drawing,” but honestly you just have to be interesting! That’s not to say you can just slap something out in a couple of minutes, but what you’re judged on is your style, and that’s something that can only come from years of work. You should have a unique perspective on subjects; personally I try and find humour in things, which makes my style rubbish for something like war reportage, but you can’t be a master of everything! Nail down what you love to do and you’ll be on the right track.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Yes, always! I’m currently working on a new comic that’s currently at an incredibly ambitious 80 pages. It’s called ‘Like and Subscribe’, set in the near future.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use a traditional angled drawing table to work out my sketches before moving over to my Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet for inks and colours. I work on a Windows PC with Photoshop to do pretty much everything.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a train when I was 5. I remember being very disappointed when I found out people couldn’t transmogrify into objects. Then I wanted to be Dogtanian… As I got older I wanted to be a journalist or councillor. Being an illustrator was a happy accident.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I think History of Art was useful in a lot of ways, as I spent years in a darkened room with a projector just looking at and learning from amazing artworks. I learnt all about structure and form, what the rules were and how they were broken and how artists could end up down a career cul-de-sac. After every lecture I’d want to go out and make something.
What were your first jobs?
I didn’t work in the creative industry until I got fired from my temp job at the British Council in 2010. At that point I was working with foreign exchange students and sorting out visas and things. It was a well-paid job, but I used to draw constantly at every job I ever had. I'd have a block of paper in front of me and doodle until I left or – in that last instance – got fired!
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I think everyone needs someone who fights your corner, and my wife Zoe has always been really supportive through every stage of my career. She could see the long game even when I couldn’t, always has the right advice for Important business decisions and is my sounding board for ideas. I wouldn’t have gotten very far without her.
Work for Ogilvy & Mather
An illustration for Sony Playstation
Sunday Times editorial
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Working with Ogilvy & Mather and Coca-Cola was a big change from editorial illustration. I needed to retain my sense of humour and style but cater to all ages and the in-house sensibilities of Coke themselves. Work would go through multiple revisions in order to meet the tone and branding of the company. For example, I made one illustration in which an ecstatic athlete was running and breaking the Coke swoosh as if it was the ribbon at the end line, and Coke's feedback was that the swoosh must never be broken in their branding. You realise that you’re just one part in a process of working towards this grander project which is unlike editorial. It’s nice now to have a foot in both worlds.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve learnt to refine my style over time, to be looser and not as uptight. I’m always wanting my images to be simpler and more instantly gratifying to the viewer. When I was younger I’d try and cram all my ideas into one illustration; now I try and boil things down and refine.
Right now I’m learning how to animate, as I see the industry leaning more into that direction, with the rise of digital editions for newspapers and magazines and social media.
“Things sometimes come out of the blue. I was recently contacted by a company in South Korea, which makes the world seem at once really small and really huge.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Building up confidence in my work. I started out non-traditionally, in that I didn’t go to art school. I did it by myself with the mistakes that ensued and it was a steep learning curve (I have a particularly horrible memory of flattening all my layers in Photoshop and then a client asking for amendments!) Also, you should have a separate hard drive backing up all your work to spare yourself the tears. All that stuff led to feelings of insecurity and being a phoney. With time and experience, I've become confident in what I can do and deliver. Everyone feels like a phoney sometimes.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
It’s turned out to be more than I thought it could be. It’s sometimes dizzying to work out which direction to take next; illustration, comics, animation are all on the table – I just need more time.
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to make a short animation to see how it would turn out. It would be exciting and satisfying to explore sound, motion and working for hours to make a little figure move. I’d like to finish my comic and go to comic festivals and meet my heroes. I also want to make a really short weekly comic and have it published in a national newspaper – a lofty goal for sure, so if that doesn’t work out I hope they’d get a least 20 likes and 5 retweets on Twitter.
Could you do this job forever?
Yes, I’d love to, I feel very lucky so I hope I do it until my hands cramp up.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Unless I move on to become an art director or an animator, there’s no real progression in illustration, you just hope to be trusted and respected enough to pull off certain jobs. I guess I’ve already got the top job in my field, I’m the big daddy, the CEO! Excuse me while I smoke a cigar.
Twin Peaks-themed personal work
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Aside from refining your style and making an impression that way, try to make the work you want to do. Look at illustrators you most admire and see the type of work they’ve created to get to where they are now. The best illustrators make work that's relatable to a wide range of people. If you’re not finding any traction in your work being picked up, try a different tack, see what type of work gets attention and look at your own portfolio critically.