Illustration by Thomas Slater for the New York Times

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Taking a Day Job Doesn’t Have to Crush Your Soul

Illustration by Thomas Slater for the New York Times
Taking a Day Job Doesn’t Have to Crush Your Soul
Published February 20, 2018 by James Cartwright

When it comes to talking about creative careers, no one likes to use the C-word: Compromise. Being the best, courting success, and living a personal fairytale are the narratives most commonly spun about what a flourishing professional life is all about. But what about creative people who have plum gigs that still don’t all their bills? What if you count the New York Times as a client, but put in two days a week at a café? What if you’re jetting off to Hong Kong, Osaka, and Tokyo for group shows, but come home to illustrating other people’s books? What if the work you really enjoy fills up your evenings and weekends, but you can count the hoots you give about the daily grind on one finger? We reckon that can constitute a fulfilling working life, too.

Since graduating in 2012, Illustrator Grace Helmer has done it all; internships, part-time jobs, working in a biscuit factory. “Yeah, I worked at a place called Biscuiteers. I iced biscuits all day. It was fun, but you weren’t meant to talk there. They'd always be like, ‘Less talking, more icing.’ They’d get really strict. I worked in a gallery where I’d get bored out of my mind. But you could just stand there thinking about ideas for projects, and then feel all fired up to make work when you got home.”

Grace-helmer, illustrator, illustration Magma print and Wakayama Up Hill by Grace Helmer.

Now, Helmer splits her time between freelance illustration and artworking for publisher Octopus Books—her official title is design assistant—and, for the moment at least, it’s exactly where she wants to be. “Sometimes you make comparisons,” says Helmer, “and feel you're not really a proper freelancer if you have a job on the side. But I haven’t wanted to leave because it’s nice to have that security.”

Thomas Slater agrees. “I’ve realized that there are benefits to having another job that makes life a bit easier, even though you’re in a situation that feels like it's not exactly what you want to do.” Slater has worked in a café on and off for the past few years, picking up shifts when illustration work is quiet, or freelancing full-time when the commissions come flooding in. Like Helmer, he’s accustomed to having multiple, simultaneous jobs.

“When I came out of university, straight away I got a full-time job landscaping. I did that for about a year, trying to do as much illustration work as I could in the evenings and weekends. Then I bumped that job down to three or four days. Then I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve saved up a bit of cash and I'm really done with this; I'm just going to freelance.’

“I did that for a year. Then there was a point when I realized I should get some work to support it because I wasn't really busy enough. It came at a time when I wanted to get more into cycling, and I didn’t have any cycling friends, so I took a job at a Rapha café.”

The social aspect of his day job keeps it interesting for Slater, who spends the rest of his time working from home with his housemate, illustrator Kyle Platts. Even though he refers to it as a “low-skilled job” that can feel like a compromise. “But it’s a happy compromise,” he says.

thomas-slater, hammer-series, manual-for-speed, illustrator Hammer Series by Thomas Slater for Manual for Speed.

Young, budding illustrators might be surprised to learn that a career in the industry takes so long to establish, but Helmer was well prepared for this reality while still at college. As she graduated, her tutor Luke Best, a successful illustrator in his own right, told her it would take 10 years before she was established enough to make a living from her work and take on the kinds of commissions she wanted.

“I always felt like I'd just have to chip away at it, and not expect to get big stuff straight away, or necessarily know what I even wanted to do. I graduated and still had no idea how to do anything, and had to learn everything while trying to get work. It does take time.”

“I was definitely prepared to grind it out for a few years before I was able to fully support myself,” says  illustrator Jesse Fillingham, who graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 2010 and has been slowly building his personal practice ever since. “I had a professor specifically state that it can take illustrators years to establish themselves. It’s been about seven-and-a-half years since I graduated and my goals as an illustrator and artist have shifted considerably over that time.”

jesse-fillingham, cosmic-contemplation, illustration, illustrator Cosmic Contemplation by Jesse Fillingham.

Currently, Fillingham works three days a week as an artist’s assistant, and the other two, plus evenings and weekends, are dedicated to his own work. He’s still keen to be a full-time illustrator in the future, but admits his work doesn’t have the commercial viability to make that happen fast. “The types of jobs I’m interested in doing are so narrow,” he says. “My current setup definitely suits me at this stage of my career.”

There are drawbacks to dividing the week between two jobs, of course. Slater believes the comfort of regular income has caused him to rest on his laurels and not push himself hard enough to take on more clients; Fillingham has turned down work because his day job encroaches on deadlines; and Helmer admits the work can sometimes be less than stimulating. But for the most part, the pros outweigh the cons.

“It’s helped me loads with things like copyright,” says Helmer, “and making me raise my day-rate and think about jobs differently. If I’m just doing a job for money, it has to pay more than what I’d be paid per day at Octopus. It also gives me the security to do more personal work. I don’t feel I have to fill every day with commercial work and always have to make a certain amount of money each week.”

Sticker-Albumm, Women-of-Gaza, Bobby Breiðholt, illustrator, graphic-designer Sticker Albumm and Women of Gaza by Bobby Breiðholt.

All of these working arrangements entail a degree of compromise, but they might seem luxurious to advertising designer Bobby Breiðholt. A graphic design graduate from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, Breiðholt works full-time at ENNEMM, an agency in Reykjavik, making work for breweries, insurance companies, and one of Iceland’s largest gas producers. In spite of the wealth of ad agencies in Reykjavik,  Breiðholt says the market simply isn’t big enough to accommodate freelance illustrators. So his evenings and weekends are spent making album covers, posters, and zines for his friends’ bands and exhibitions, or developing his line of photo books—all outside regular office hours. Even though personal creative work occupies less of his time than his day job, “That’s what I need to be doing,” he says.

“If I wasn’t freelancing and doing what I consider more creative work, I’d just go crazy.”

For Breiðholt and many of his peers, a full-time salaried job is a necessity, as the idea of making good money from freelance illustration or design is still just out of reach. “I would definitely do it if the market was bigger and you could get better paid,” he says. “It’s just expensive to live in Reykjavik and the rent is really high. You need that day job money to survive.”

But money worries are universal among illustrators. “A friend of mine met a kid at a comics fair who said he was getting into illustration because of the money,” says Slater. “He just had to explain to this kid that he was mad—nobody’s ever become an illustrator for the money.”

More about James Cartwright

James Cartwright is an editor and art director with a particular interest in environmental, design, and lifestyle writing.

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