The Next Step: How to make it as an illustrator Pt 1 (Interview with That Girl)

Starting out as a professional illustrator is tricky – there’s no studio jobs you can just apply for so it comes down to starting your own business from scratch.   But how do you go about making a name for yourself, building up a client base of the right sort of work, being creatively fulfilled and still making enough money to survive?

I decided to talk to partners-in-crime That Girl (aka Jo Wilson) and Horse (Gary McGarvey), a combined force to be reckoned with in the Northern screenprint scene and the people behind Screenadelica (a travelling gig poster exhibition showcasing the posters of some of the best international poster artists).  This morning I get the recent-grad perspective from That Girl, who graduated just two years ago but has made massive strides in her short career and then this afternoon I talk to Horse, a more established name in the illustration world.

Gig poster for the Warlocks

That Girl gig poster for The Warlocks

But first, meet that girl, erm, ‘That Girl’ as I talk to her about her journey from savvy student organising exhibitions for her fellow coursemates and networking like a motherflipper to the present date which sees her artwork adorning most of Liverpool’s gig posters and sees her travelling the globe with Screenadelica, delivering print workshops,  having her debut solo exhibition and setting up an illustration studio (phew!) –  and asked her about her experiences, both good and bad, in the transition from student-to-professional and what advice she had for illustration students preparing to enter the world of work.

You started your professional journey whilst still at uni – tell us a bit about that…

I was in second year of uni, surrounded by incredibly talented people on my course, everyone concentrating on course work. So ‘Pornographics’ (the exhibition) was an excuse to showcase our illustration and design our own brief. The whole thing went pretty well, the opening night was a fun night!

That same year I met Horse – Gary McGarvey – at Screenadelica. I think he later saw some posters I designed and asked me if I wanted to get involved in Screenadelica, which of course I did.

Selling prints at Screenadelica

Selling prints at Screenadelica

Tell us a bit about the stuff you’ve done since graduating…

I was helping Horse out with bits and bobs until I finished uni. He asked me if I’d be interested in coming along to Primavera Festival in Barcelona to help him sell posters at the Flatstock stalls there. Primavera has is definitely one of the best things I’ve done. Each year I’ve gone back I’ve been more involved with the whole thing. The first year I went around to all the booths and did interviews with some of the poster artists. I also got an interview with the musician Josh T Pearson which was pretty special.

Interviewing the artists was brilliant, and I realised that everyone was there to sell posters but also to hang out with each other, and everyone I’ve met so far has turned out to be unbelievably sound! From that experience I know that that is the thing I want to do and be part of and something I can do, so no matter where my art takes me, I’m always going to try to screen print gig posters and head to Flatstock whenever I possibly can, and sell a bit more of my own work.

Gig poster for Sleepy Sun at The Kazimire

Gig poster for Sleepy Sun at The Kazimire

The past year I’ve been helping out with Outpost, Horse’s screen printing studio, and getting a handle on printing large editions of posters and smaller prints. So in the next few months I will be setting up my own design studio with the illustrator and print maker Laura-Kate Chapman. Everything’s in the early stages at the moment but it’s going very quickly and it’s something we’re both extremely excited about. The print scene in Liverpool is building up so I’m looking forward to being a part of the small growing network. So far the concept behind the studio is to provide an affordable way of printing and also push for experimenting with print. We’re already planning some cracking exhibitions to start us off and get people involved so please watch this space!

Oh yes and workshops! That links in with the studio really, I’ve done a few workshops before, at last years Summer Arts Market at St George’s Hall, local schools, print fairs and also a few days printing with the public for free at FACT. I love doing print demos and workshops because people have no idea how easy and fun printing is. I really want to expand the workshop aspect and maybe get a little travelling print show on the go.

At work in the studio!

At work in the studio!

Then there is Screenadelica. This years Screenadelica was the biggest and best it’s ever been, I was so proud and so was Horse. He started the whole thing and it’s grown every year. For the past 4 years Screenadelica has been running alongside Liverpool Sound City, with it’s own stage and bands playing. This year we had 65 Days of Static headlining on the last night of the festival, they blew the roof of the place. Screenadelica tours around to other festivals too, in Europe and the US.

How did you get your first few paid jobs?

I was really lucky to meet the man behind Harvest Sun Promotions in my second year of uni, he came into uni to set a poster brief to my year. The poster I designed didn’t get picked to go on the street but that summer, on a whim, I emailed him to see if he needed any posters designing, he remembered me I and got a few done . When I finished uni he asked me if I’d like to design all the Harvest Sun posters. Since then the gigs have gotten bigger and better, and Harvest Sun is one of the main names in Liverpool for great music. In the past 2 years I have designed so many posters I can’t count.

I got my other first few commissions just by being out there and letting people know what I was doing. I’m very social and I know it’s not the same for everyone – but I know plenty of people who have done really well but you never bloody seen them!

I got some paid work off the back of doing free work. I haven’t done lots of free work but illustrations I have done for free have been for people and companies I like. Namely Bido Lito! Magazine who paid me back double by writing a feature on me probably about a year after I did illustrations for them. I did free illustrations mainly just to get them seen, hardly anyone knows who’s designing posters the on the street but it’s different when you can have your name written underneath your drawing.

Featured in Bido Lito! magazine

Featured in Bido Lito! magazine

How did your solo exhibition come about?

My exhibition came about through my friend Tyler who’s a promoter in Liverpool, he puts on gigs as BamBamBam and You Do The Math. He’d started putting gigs on in East Village Arts Club and I got involved in selling some merch. Got to sell merch for Dinosaur Jr which is quite brilliant. Tyler just threw the idea out there that’d the venue would be keen to get some sweet artwork up on the walls. By that time I’d done a few posters for the venue so those posters are up and some of my old prints. My work’s been up for over a year now, probably down to sheer laziness. On my behalf and the venues. Basically I just put myself out there and mentioned what I do.

There’s plenty of venues out there or restaurants that may be interested in having an exhibition though. The Baltic Bakehouse has an exhibition up that I’m part of now.

What about the workshops?

I normally say I’m shit on Twitter, but one of them happened because of Twitter. A workshop group searched for screen printing and Liverpool and twitter and I came up. They needed a workshop in a local primary school at very short notice so I grabbed Horse and we action planned! Together we had 4 groups of 30 5 years olds in one day, I got a school dinner aswell it was wonderful. We screen printed christmas cards and cut out decorations that where screenprinted, to decorate each groups own Christmas tree, to be put in the display for the Christmas play.

I really enjoy doing them and I’m planning new workshops with Laura Chapman very soon as she has also got lots of experience in creative workshops. Myself an Gary are always keen on taking live screenprinting to events, the last one we did was at an Inprint print fair. And probably the best one was at FACT in Liverpool. Three groups of printers printing live at Fact gallery and Cinema all day organised by Horse. Getting the public involved printing music-influenced illustrations which they could take for free after they’d printed. He got myself, Laura Chapman and another Liverpool printer Ash Hopkins from Payper Tiger to print each day. It was super fun. So many people had never heard of screen printing so it was fun. Printing is a magical thing anyway, one movement and voila!


In what ways has your collaboration with Horse helped you? And would you recommend collaborations to other grads?

Yes I would! My collaboration with Horse is invaluable. I couldn’t have asked to meet a better person than him. I’ve learnt so much from him in the past few years printing together until 5am and going Primavera, putting on Screenadelica. It’s been so much fun!! It’s been great being involved with Horse for me because he is so driven and works full time as a designer, making amazing posters and organising Flatstock!

It’s a good thing that we met when we did, when he was looking for an assistant to get involved with Screenadelica .So he’s helped me out meeting people getting my work seen by more people and getting up on my game at designing posters and screen printing . As well as motivating me and showing me what you can achieve. So I don’t know if it’s luck or fate or what but I’ve been extremely lucky in being able to hang out with him for as long as I have! Big shout out to Horse for when he reads this haha!

How do you manage the financial side of things?

Unless you’re very fortunate or savvy you wont be paid a heap of money for your ideas and skills until you’ve got a reputation for good work and find the right people who want someone to design or illustrate for them.

A lot of the money I earn from my art goes straight to the landlord. That’s annoying but that’s life eh, It’s expensive to live in a first world country. It’s been gradual but since leaving uni I’ve had multiple day jobs, I’m not making a regular living from my illustration and design, I have 2 jobs at the moment and they’re my safety blanket. Unless you’re very lucky I think to pursue this wonderful creative career you need to have regular work on the side to stay warm at night.

What are the issues you think graduate illustrators face when trying to break into the industry?

One of the issues I faced was being was being paid properly for my first few projects. I think some people have a brother or friend who does logo’s for cheap on the side and they think it’s like that for everyone and unless you’re a ‘real design studio’ making logos then you should therefore be cheap. But I’m also pretty realistic. People putting on gigs, and cool creative events in Liverpool really don’t have the money to be paying hundreds for artwork, a lot of events just about cover costs, so money is scarce. I think its important to not focus on the money too much. I’ve done mates rates posters for people because I wanted to, and naturally one day they will have something for me, or help me get into a gig for free, or sort me out with advice etc. It’s nice.


The other thing is while I was in uni and a short while after I finished, I was very aware of how many other super badass artists there are out there, inside the internet and in uni around me, my friends. I thought maybe the industry was oversaturated with great illustrators and artists. Maybe it’s just my personal fear but I wasn’t sure where I slotted into the whole thing. So for me, my own doubts definitely have stopped me in the past from really going for it. I’ve gone with the flow and found the more work I do the more comes back to me.

What advice would you give to illustrators about to embark on their first professional year?

Sounds obvious but tell people that you’re an illustrator. I found it really hard to start introducing myself as an illustrator at first. But when people got to know that I was designing posters that they saw around town, or for their gigs, I got such good reactions and people we’re so keen to find out about what I do and see my work.

So  some people get work soley from the internet, but in all honesty I don’t do that much social media for my artwork so if you’re a super internet wiz, on instagram, twitter or tumblr then maybe this advice doesn’t apply, but I guess I was meeting people at gigs and soon after that gigs that I’d designed the poster for. Meeting bands and promoters and tour managers and getting more work.

So say you want to start designing t shirts then I’d say your first port of call is your nearest t shirt designer or printer and see if you can have a look at what they’re doing. See if they need any help or just go to ask questions. Then go home and design some t shirts of your own. I’ve learnt so much more about screen printing in the past 2 years than I did in the 3 years I was at university, because when I graduated I went out and started getting involved in print stuff. It’s not like you leave uni as a complete illustrator doll with added accessories. When you leave uni that’s when you’re ready to start really learning about what you need to do.

Good advice for the business side of things is get a contract drawn up. The artists Daggers For Teeth told me the importance of a good contract, because when you’re dealing with clients through email there can be a misunderstandings along the way. I recently designed a poster, organised via email, only to find out after I’d sent the work that the client had printed 12 of my posters, put them up for sale on the bands website without telling me. Making almost triple of what I got paid for the design. Some clients don’t realise that there’s some things they can’t do with your work, so making that clear in a contract is really important.

Lastly, from my own experience and my friends I think as long as you’re creating the work you want to be making or have an idea and decide to see it though you’re heading in the right direction and whatever challenges there are to try not to let them put you off.