Questioning Creatives


This article was written on 22 Nov 2012, and is filled under illustrators.

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Zara Picken

Hello there – my name is Zara Picken, I’m 27 and I live in the North East of England. I’m originally from Walsall in the West Midlands and graduated from the University of the West of England in Bristol in 2008. I have been working professionally as an illustrator since then, creating illustrations for a wide range of clients for editorial, advertising, publishing and more.

When did you decide you wanted to be illustrator?
I always wanted to be an artist of some description but it was only when I studied on my foundation course in 2004 that I decided to apply for an Illustration degree. I had been focusing on Graphic Design but my tutor suggested illustration based on the work I’d been producing and suddenly it all made sense.

My A Level in Art before that was a traditional Fine Art course. I soon realised that I wanted to create work on a wide range of subjects – I didn’t enjoy painting still life studies on canvas as much as I liked doodling in the margins of my schoolbooks during other lessons, interpreting a variety of topics. I think I always wanted to be an illustrator. I just didn’t realise that what I was doing was called illustration.

Would you recommend studying at art school?
I would definitely recommend it, yes. I think art school allows you the time and space to develop your approach to creating work. The support you get is also invaluable. Art school is hugely enjoyable and enables you to meet people both similar and different to yourself.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that there is a lot of hard work involved after graduation. Many universities will not fully prepare you (especially for the business side of things), so it’s best to expect that you will continue learning for many years to come.

How long was it before illustration became your primary form of income?
It was about two years from graduating before my sole income came from illustration. I had a brief stint as a full-time graphic designer just after graduating in 2008, which lasted two months – I soon realised that I would be unable to work full-time and dedicate the required time and effort to illustration.

After this, I came to the conclusion that part-time casual work would be the best solution, as this would enable me to work more when illustration went quiet or turn down casual work when I was busy. This flexibility worked well for a while. I had two interesting and relatively stress-free jobs. By 2010, when I started to pick up more regular illustration commissions, I was able to leave these jobs and concentrate fully on illustration.

Could you describe your typical day?
I wake at around 7.30am and start working before 9.00am, checking emails and making sure any administrative tasks are taken care of. I will then start working on commissions and continue through until lunch, after which I resume working. If I don’t have a commission to work on, I will focus on self-promotion or self-initiated projects. Whatever I’m doing will be accompanied by the radio or a record playing in the background.

I go outside for a walk and some fresh air halfway through the afternoon – if I’m lucky I will sometimes have a chance to go out for a coffee or read a newspaper. Some days I stop working at 5.30pm but on others it might be closer to 10pm.

What do you wish you’d know when you first started out?
I’ve enjoyed finding things out as I’ve progressed – it’s good to acquire knowledge through experience. Having said that, if someone had mentioned to me that it’s a smart idea to keep work backed-up on external hard drives, that would have been appreciated. I could have lived without the experience of data recovery.

What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
Not knowing what’s coming next. You can never be sure what you’re going to be doing from one week to the next. There are lots of surprises and you get to create work you would never have expected to make. I love the freedom I have and being paid to do what I love for a living.

What’s the worst thing about being an illustrator?
Not knowing what’s coming next. The same unknown that makes the job exciting also makes it unstable. When will the next commission come through? Will you have to chase a client for payment? It’s not a career for people who like certainty.

If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be?
It would have been something creative or cultural. In the past I’ve worked part-time in a couple of art galleries, a library, a theatre and an architecture centre so maybe I would have gravitated towards a cultural institution of some description. I’m also a bit of a collector/organiser at heart, so it’s possible that I would have been a curator.

Any other tips you could share?
On these occasions I turn to the ever-pertinent wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

One Comment

  1. Joe McLean
    March 22, 2013

    Cool stuff! Great colours and textures.

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