The Next Step: How to make it as an illustrator Pt 2 (Interview with Horse)

So this morning we got the recent-grad perspective on ‘how to make it as an illustrator’ with our That Girl interview. This afternoon I speak with the other half of the (honorary) scouse screenprinting superduo and get the ‘more experienced’ perspective straight from the Horse’s mouth (ahem).

Horse (or Gary McGarvey as he’s known by his mum) is generally known as the guy that does all the flippin music-industry work round these parts – his love for music and screenprinting has seen him go from gig poster artist extraordinaire to setting up and running travelling screenprint fair Screenadelica (which also became a popup shop in Liverpool for a couple of months) to organising and delivering workshops to schools and at various events to setting up his studio ‘Outpost’,  a collaborative creative space for screenprinters and photographers alike.

In our chat Horse tells how he got to where he is now from starting out as a grad with big ambitions, shares his experiences good and bad, and gives some helpful pointers along the way…


Whilst you were at uni did you have an idea about what steps to take to carve out a career for yourself as a professional illustrator?

From the start I wanted to work within the Music industry, I was always advised against pigeon holing myself so much, but I had the idea in my head and I was going for it, regardless of how hard it was! To help support myself through university, I worked in two music venues, I figured this was the best way to meet the people I needed to know, but also have the bonus of not having to pay to see shows. Over the years, I was at uni, I gradually built up relationships with promoters, bands, managers, anyone who would let me work for them. Talent is obviously a big part of being a designer/illustrator, but when you want to be someone who does music design/illustration, then who you know is also a huge part.

The more you draw and the more work you produce, the better you get. I spend most hours of most days working, not always because I have to, Im lucky enough that what I do is both my job and hobby. I have banks and bans of work which I haven’t used yet, whether its building up textures, patterns, or just sketching ideas, have hard drives and keep everything.

Giving some traditional art a revamp for the Outpost walls

Giving some traditional art a revamp for the Outpost walls

Tell us about your journey from student to professional illustrator, taking us up to the present day….

As I said, the steps started when I was at university, I pretty much knew I wanted to at least give doing freelance a decent shot, if it didn’t work then I would happily go in search of a studio job, I just felt that I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to at least explore first.

My first steps towards getting anything regular which was design related all started with the old Korova venue on Fleet/Wood Street. Here was where I designed my first gig poster while I was in Liverpool and from that first poster, it snowballed into a string of posters for a number of different club nights, then I started doing regular poster work for Evol kingpin, Revo. Aswell as revamping his ‘formula’ style of posters, he gave me the freedom to do something a little different and use it as a platform to find my style I guess. My first screen print poster was one which he sorted out with the management for the XX, I printed it and it sold out on the night. From there, I got the bug! Obviously the making money part was great, but the peoples enthusiasm for my work, when screen prints at shows were not a regular thing, really got me determined to see how far I could take it. Making choices on the right shows and getting the permissions was key, building up a portfolio of bands and letting people know who you are.


Liverpool treated me well, people saw my posters and a lot of people knew my name as a result. As in every city, there can be cliques, but i tried to ignore that and get involved with as many people as i could, you never know where your next contact is coming from. Getting on with people and not stepping on toes goes a long way. Things like collectives are great, just don’t let them alienate you from the rest of the world. Im not saying that you have to be a super outgoing person, and that you can’t be successful if you’re not, but it certainly helps.

Was it difficult to make the transition from student to professional?

I didn’t enjoy being a student. It was just something that wasn’t for me! I had some great tutors, offered great opportunities, but I didn’t find my true style or creativity until I had left and I had to find it by myself. I work in an introverted way sometimes, maybe it was being forced to work with other people in a big studio that didn’t suit me. That has changed now, I can work with other people, I really enjoy it in fact, but when I was learning and finding my way, it seemed a bit daunting. So when you say the transition from student to professional, I think the primary transition was from working in bars and venues to being professional, taking that leap and just going for it, not being part time, just giving it everything and working hard for it.

It was hard and a lot of work involved. To start out I was lucky enough to get a grant from the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and was able to set myself up in a little studio, shared with 4 dj’s, and buy new equipment. This was a great experience for me at the time, I met a lot of people in the dance music scene and got jobs from that. Our studio was next to the Rascals (Miles Kane etc) so we had a lot of traffic coming through from bands like Arctic Monkeys and a ton of dj’s, even Hollyoaks filmed in there for one of their late night shows. It was a fun place to be and it allowed me to work in a very different environment that I would usually have had.


I started Screenadelica in 2009, I loved screen printed posters, but I handy been able to show my work to more than the crowd at any given show, so I wanted an outlet to be able to exhibit. If no one was taking enough notice of me then i was gonna do something about it. The first show had 9 artists from UK, Ireland, Spain and France, went down really well and got people talking. The next few years would take me to a string of festivals in America, Europe, Ireland and UK, running shows and commissioning other artists and getting my work out there as much as possible.

I started taking part in Flatstocks, the biggest collective of gig poster artists worldwide, and things just got bigger and bigger. This year was my 4th SXSW Flatstock, the biggest gathering of poster artists worldwide and its been not only a huge eye opener, but also a great source on contacts and work. Last year I got made board member of the American Poster Institute and I now run Flatstock Barcelona, both a huge deal to me, something that I had worked hard to get, when the invitation came, I jumped at the chance. All these things have really helped me on my path to being a professional.

Screenadelica became a pop-up shop in Liverpool for a few months

Screenadelica became a pop-up shop in Liverpool for a few months

How long did it take before it felt like you were getting somewhere?

For me, I was lucky, I was getting paid for most of the poster work I was doing right from the start. Someone once told me that do work for free or full price, never cheap, don’t under value yourself. Now, rates have increased over the years, as you become more in demand and you can justify it with the work you produce, but back then, I charged what I thought was a fair rate for my posters and got it.

So I think the things that felt like progression was the first time I saw a record cover I designed on the shelf, or a big one for me was my first Bill Board design. The billboard was for Liverpool Music Week when I took over their branding in 2010, I also remember seeing it one afternoon, not knowing it was up yet. I ran home, got my camera and got back to discover a new design had just been hung over it! It was also the last one in the city to get done, so I missed them all!

I still feel like Im getting somewhere, theres so much I want to do and so many roads I want to go down, with each big job that comes in, I feel like I’m still moving in the right direction.

3 from a set of posters illustrating various cities

3 from a set of posters illustrating various cities

 What things worked well? 

Screenprinting was the one that changed everything for me, it gave me the opportunity to work with some of my favourite bands and allowed me to travel the world doing exhibitions. Right now Im in Porto getting ready to set up at Primavera Sound Festival, having just come back from a week in Barcelona, after 3 weeks of Liverpool, Brighton and Bristol! Doing screen printed gig posters takes dedication, determination and knowing the right people. Its something you have to stick at, build good relationships with people and know who to keep onside! The music industry is small, the gig poster world is tiny, breaking thru is hard but so worth it in the end.

Is there anything you would go back and tell yourself to do differently?

The things that I would change is getting the right experience. If I could do it again, I’d try and get into a design studio a day a week, make friends with designers, printers, whoever you think will help you out in the future. Thats the part I came into the world blind about. You don’t get taught things like how to source a printer, how to set up files for litho, or the simple little tricks that people who have been in the industry for years know!


You eventually pick them up but you also spend days of your time trying to figure them out. Some people won’t share their contacts, they will get some printer, find out that he is top of his game, really appreciate his output and they will sit on him and not tell a soul who prints for them. I hate that, ask me anything and I will tell you. The work is a far better place when people share. Id rather take a day and help someone screen print than watch them struggle with a bit of bad technique that they can easily get over, something that they just won’t have been shown.

So yeah, get as much experience as you can, hands on experience, not just experience for experience sake.

Why did you start collaborating with That Girl?

I needed someone to help out with Screenadelica, it was getting to the stage where I was commissioning posters, printing posters, not to mention my regular design work, and I needed someone to help with shows and do some social media. We met in 2010 at Sound City when she came to see the show there, she seemed super interested and enthusiastic and we got on. Thats the most important thing for me, is to get on with people, you could be the most amazing artist in the world, but if we don’t click, then sometimes its a struggle!

Jo has been a huge help over the years, her work has also come on amazing, she has a very bright future ahead of her. She was on Barcelona last week with me and has already built up great relationships with the other established poster artists and will do well in it. She knows the uphill road ahead of her and she’s more than capable to tackle it.


Has the way you get your commissions changed since when you started?

Yeah, for sure, I think it constantly changes. Only 5 weeks ago, I was working on 4 projects. One for a company who test gasses in mines in Australia, one for a Black Metal festival in Lithuania, one was a screen print for a saxophone fronted rock band and one for a hairdresser so my work gets quite varied.

At the start, I used to approach bands, now a lot of bands approach me to do work, I guess its something that comes with time, but never be afraid to write an email. not everyone knows who you are, they never will, but never be afraid to let them know you are out there and there will be that one job that may suit your style along the way somewhere!

Aswell as the work you do that you love do you ever have to do some work you’re less passionate about to pay the bills?

Always. There is tons of work which I will never put on my site, which look nothing like my style. At one stage, without any of them knowing, I was doing all the artwork for 3 of the bars in concert square in Liverpool. I have had some strange jobs in the past and some great ones, but none of them are the typical ‘Horse’ job, so they get put in a hard drive and thats where they stay. Im very passionate about what i do, but bills still have to be paid and you have to take things you don’t have as much passion for. Unfortunately, the music industry is feeling the force of the recession combined with downloading etc, so there isn’t as much money in it these days unless you are working with the big names. Doing jobs like this that do pay the bills, allows me an extra job here or there for bands that i really like to help them out and do some free work for them still.


Whats coming up for you in the future?

I move to Canada in 3 weeks to Toronto. I have a 2 year visa and Im gonna see what it holds for me! My girlfriend has moved out already, I had to wait on visas etc, so Im giving it a shot. I love Liverpool, I always will, and Im more than happy im leaving it while Im so in love with the place. In my opinion, its without a shadow of a doubt the best city in the UK. Moving anywhere else for me in the UK would merely be a side step, nothing could top it. I have spend a lot of time in other cities and they may have their pockets of greatness, I couldn’t recommend giving Liverpool a go more.


I want to start doing a lot more art prints, explore screen printing more, see what i can with it. I also still think I have a lot more to learn and to develop my work further, I dont think I’ll be content with the way I work for a good few more years, but I see that as a good thing, Im not happy if my next piece of work isn’t better than the last. My girlfriend is a music and travel writer, so we hope to combine those two and do something together. We have a lot of ideas and we’re looking forward to seeing where that can take us. I still will be doing music based work, but always looking for new ways to push what I do, this new start is going to be exciting and a challenge.

What advice/tips would you give to illustration students/new grads?

Stick at it, go out of your way to meet the right people and remain enthusiastic about what you do. There will be jobs that bring you down, but the way i see it, that sets you up for getting brought up even more by the next job that you get praise and attention for.

Always have business cards on you. Don’t be afraid to have a few different brands for yourself, maybe one for more creative work and one for corporate. You never know who will ask for a card or who you will meet that can lead to work. I have met so many clients on nights out, at records shops, at weddings, you name it