My name is Signe Gabriel, I’m 26 years old and I work and live in wonderful Copenhagen, Denmark. I am a freelance illustrator and specialize in narrative illustration aimed at children (and adults with a healthy imagination). I illustrate children’s books and do some editorial illustration, and I have an Etsy shop where I sell posters and greeting cards. I also paint, both murals and on canvas. I have always been drawing and painting and I remember writing and illustrating my own books since I was really young – before I even started school. I guess it was always what I wanted to do but for reasons that I think a lot of people can relate to – fear of failing or not being good enough, or even believing that a career as an illustrator was just not possible – I kept trying to find something else to be when I grew up, but eventually I had to realize that I just wanted to draw.
When did you decide you wanted to be illustrator?
I always wanted to be an illustrator, but was told that it’s too risky to choose as a career, and I believed that. After all, I had no family members who were artists or entrepreneurs of some other kind. I had to re-educate myself on the subject and gather a lot of courage before finally taking the decision to make it my career.
In Denmark we have this saying “to walk like a cat around hot porridge” (I think it translates to beating around the bush) and that’s what I did in the years following high school – I didn’t really try to make a career out of my art, but I also didn’t fall in love with another career and didn’t find a college program that seemed to fit. I did a lot of traveling, tried a bunch of different jobs, took some art classes, and developed my skills, so I don’t regret the lack of focus during those years – I needed the time to gather courage. There is a huge difference in dreaming of doing something and then actually making a decision to do it. When I took the decision everything just fell into place.
Would you recommend studying at art school?
Yes, I guess. I didn’t go, partly because of the aforementioned hot porridge, but also because there is not really any courses or programs available in Denmark that are focused on illustration. We do have design schools, but they are phasing out illustration in the traditional sense, and are becoming more theoretical and less workshop and craft oriented. I have been attending shorter art courses on independent art schools though.
If I had been more confident in my decision to work in illustration right after high school, I might have gone to art school in a different country, but I decided to give it a shot by myself. I know a lot of illustrators who didn’t go, so I don’t think art school is absolutely necessary but especially if you are young I think it provides a solid foundation before you head out on your own.
How long was it before illustration became your primary form of income?
It still isn’t, but I’m confident that I’m getting there. I didn’t start actively seeking commissions since this last fall. This spring the number of commissions I get has been on the rise, and I have had more costumers on Etsy, so I think at this point I make half of my income from illustration. I teach yoga classes to make ends meet, which has proven to be just perfect. The hourly wage is much higher than the average part time job so I don’t have to work as much, and I really love it. It’s fun and I get to move around and meet a lot of people, so It’s a great contrast from drawing at the kitchen table.
Could you describe your typical day?
I usually wake up at around 8 o’clock. I live in a tiny apartment with my boyfriend, and he likes to sleep for a little bit longer than me, so I try to be quiet in the morning. The morning is usually the best time for me to start new projects, so I’ll make a mug of coffee and then go straight to work, finishing up sketches or start colouring sketches from the night before. If I don’t have any commission deadlines approaching, I’ll work on my own projects. Around 11 I’ll suddenly hear my stomach rumbling because I forgot to eat breakfast, so I’ll find something to eat and get dressed. If I sold something on Etsy I’ll do some packaging and go to the post office, or I’ll jump on my bike and head for my yoga class if I have to teach that day. When I get home I’ll start working again, usually until 5, then go for a walk with my boyfriend. Then we cook and eat together. Normally I have trouble concentrating in the evening so if I feel like working more I’ll do some rough sketches or update my website or Facebook page.
What do you wish you’d know when you first started out?
I wish I had known that if you make a decision and focus and practice, you really can do anything you want. It applies to everything, and not just art!
What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
The best thing is that your work is also your hobby and probably it’s the thing you love doing the most. I am just having so much fun doing what I do. Also, earning money from something you created is so gratifying and such a huge compliment. The money I earn from illustration seems to be worth ten times as much as money I’ve earned elsewhere.
What’s the worst thing about being an illustrator?
The thing I struggle with the most is the guilt I feel on the days when I’m not working. Especially if I didn’t have any work coming in for a few weeks it is really difficult to relax without feeling that I should be working. I think a lot of freelancers and other self-employed people must feel like this.
If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be?
If I weren’t an illustrator, I would be a yoga teacher and teach all over the world! Or I would work in some organisation like Save the Children or the Red Cross. I hope to benefit and inspire people in a positive way through my illustrations instead.
Any other tips you could share?
Make it possible for yourself to succeed. If you make the decision to become an illustrator, try to arrange the rest of your life in a way that makes it possible. Try to lower your monthly expenses so you are not as vulnerable if you don’t get any work for a while. Get a part time job so you don’t have to worry about the rent, but work as little as possible to make time for your illustration business. Make your own projects if you don’t get work! It is great for your portfolio but at the same time, you probably wanted to be an illustrator because you love to draw and create, and creating something just for fun is what keeps the creative juices flowing. Go to local craft fairs and sell your products, it’s fun and it’s so exciting to hear what people think and get feedback (they are usually really kind).