Starting out in illustration

 3 July 2012

After studying graphic design, John Cei Douglas quit his day job and set himself up as an illustrator. He spoke about his experiences in art college and the struggle to make a living.

Studying as an artist

"I always wanted to draw, I didn't entirely know what. I think I wanted to be an artist for a while, but at college they told me not to carry on with fine art.

"They put me in graphic design and I was one of two people who did illustration there. I had comics on my desk and they told me it was too graphic design for fine art.

"They wanted to see why I wanted to do it, and they were just asking me questions like, 'What would you think if you came to college and I was painting a fish on the side of the wall of the college with a fish?' And I just thought, 'I'd probably think you were a moron, frankly, and that you're trying to make some sort of statement which is not interesting.' I didn't say that at the time, but there you go."

Leaving the day job for a creative career

"I was working in a data entry job which was incredibly depressing. One day someone had brought me a comic. I was reading it at work and I decided to quit and go and draw a comic of my own.

"Nothing motivates you as much as someone giving you a brief."

"It took quite a few months. But I just found that I got quite a nice response from it. It felt good and it reminded me of what I wanted to do.

"I really liked working for Plan B, which was a music magazine, because the briefs were always quite interesting. For a start, you might get to learn about music you might not know anything about.

"I also find that nothing actually motivates you as much as someone giving you a brief."

Earning a living as a freelance illustrator

"Most people have a mailout, like they mail out a card, or they let people know they've got new work. They do that a few times a year. I send my comics out a lot.

"I got offers of work from that – which all fell through, because magazine editors aren't reliable. Which you also have to remember, because I'd get excited over every possibility, like, 'Oh wow, it's gonna be great, I'm gonna make it from this!'. And then you know not to get excited until you actually get a brief. So that was a learning process as well. 

"People are quite tight. I get offers of work a lot, just from the portfolio I have on the AOI website. They think they can get the world for £100, and you're trying to explain to them that it's going to be a week's work. It's quite hard in those respects.

"I find myself in an odd position sometimes, seeing people that I haven't seen in a while, and they're all really impressed with what I've managed to do.

"And I'm thinking, 'I'm not earning any money at all.' I feel like a bit of a fraud a lot of the time, but people just see you're in a magazine, it's impressive. Or you have things on a T-shirt. And it's nice, but you also want to be able to earn enough money to live on."

Examples of John's work can be found on his website

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