From Art School to Publication: Why Having an Agent is Key II
last updated 14 July 2016
Bright Group International has been an illustration agency for over 13 years. Beginning from a tiny bedroom in Clapham, Bright Founder and MD Vicki Willden-Lebrecht made it her mission to champion artists and illustrators, to help them become the best they could possibly be and to propel those creators of children’s books back into having ‘rock star’ recognition in a world where digital was fast becoming the thing. The ethos is that a book must be valued as a beautiful creation, unlike anything the digital world can offer. There is no doubt that there will always be a place for children’s books in physical form — there’s just something about a book isn’t there?
Last week we heard from US Creative Agent, Anne Moore Armstrong on discoverability and artistic development. You can read more from Anne in part one here.
The Illustrators: David Litchfield; Nicola O’Byrne; Becca Stadtlander
In the first blog, we heard from each artist on how it all began, and over the next two sections of this blog series, we look at how they have grown and developed into the successful illustrators they’ve become.
Looking at your artwork from when you were at art school or even say 10 years ago in comparison to now, is there a noticeable change? Would you say that it’s all down to practice and confidence?
[David] Yes, totally. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and when I realised that drawing was the thing I enjoyed the most and something I could potentially find a career in, I really focussed on getting good and practiced as much as possible.
I did actually look back quite recently over some of my old work, and even things from a four or five years ago I can really see how I have progressed and developed. Back then I was only using watercolours and inks. And then a couple of years ago I started to combine a lot more digital elements into my drawings, and that opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for me.
The really exciting thing about being an illustrator — and anything artistic actually — is that you should always keep developing and exploring new ways of producing art. I’m a big believer that if you feel too comfortable with a technique or certain materials then you should try something new that takes you out of your comfort zone. Otherwise everything starts to look the same and gets old and boring very quickly.
Early work by David Litchfield: Colonel Fred Barnaby Coming down the stairs: Mikey James Spurlock: 20th June, Freak in the City.
[Nicola] My undergrad work contained far more realistic illustration and I used to sketch in coffee shops for up to 4 hours a day. I still enjoy sketching but I have had to work at making my illustrations more picture book friendly. I really struggled to draw my first character — the crocodile from Open Very Carefully [Nosy Crow] — because I couldn’t draw him upright. When I finally did, I hated him! To my great surprise, he was Highly Commended, he won the Waterstones Book Prize in 2014, he became the Book Trust Book of 2015, and the next step will be a series, the first one, What’s Next Door, to be published by Nosy Crow in August 2017. So Croc and I — we’ve made friends again since then!
On the whole, I find illustrators to be a particularly self critical lot, so practice is very important, but I would like to say a few words here about my agent, Vicki Willden-Lebrecht [Bright MD and Founder] because for any Art graduate about to embark on a career in illustration, I would say having an agent is absolutely key in helping with growth and development in the right direction.
Vicki has been my agent now for almost 6 years. Having trained at The University of Portsmouth in graphic design, I believe this gives her a keen insight into artistic process and a natural understanding of the artists she represents. In that time she has grown my career from nothing but a handmade portfolio of very mixed quality work, to becoming a multi-award winning picture book author and illustrator, with over 8 published titles and more on the way. She is also a savvy negotiator and an extraordinary business woman, whose foresight for the growth and well being of her artists is tireless. She posseses energy, vision and business acumen, and working with her has brought me stability and a chance to blossom in a career I always dreamed of.
Preliminary ideas for Open Very Carefully, Illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne
[Becca] My student artwork is downright embarrassing for me to look at now and I’ve gotten rid of most of it except for a few things. My work has changed immensely since then and it continues to change. I didn’t notice at the time, but looking back I can see clearly how my skills have developed and shifted. Things I did last year and even a couple months ago, I look at and think I would do differently now. I like that feeling because I don’t ever want to stop growing!
A piece from Becca’s student portfolio (left) and a piece from her Bright portfolio.
Yes, it’s all about practice and confidence. When I first started out of school, I gave myself assignments and treated them like they were the real thing. I put my work on the internet and did a lot of things for free. My motto was “fake it ‘til you make it” and it still is. A small part of me still feels like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m ok with that.
How did your relationship with Bright begin?
[Nicola] I exhibited at D&AD in London and was approached by two agents there. I went to see Bright — I half thought it was a prank to be honest, I couldn’t believe my luck — and within 3 months had my first contracts.
A piece made by Nicky for our traveling exhibition, originally showcased at London’s Barbican Centre of Arts for The Bookseller Children’s Conference in September 2015. Soon to be traveling around the UK with our first stop at The Oxford Literary Festival.
[Becca] In 2013, I worked with Anne Moore Armstrong on a picture book for Candlewick Press called On the Wing, by David Elliot. She was seeking US artists and asked me if I was interested in Bright when she joined the team. I haven’t looked back!
[David] I’m going to let you into a secret now, but when I quit my full time job to become an illustrator in January 2014 I was completely terrified.
My son was only one and a half years old, we were saving for a house, and y’know, lots of grown up things were staring to happen.
And quitting my job at this point in life to follow my dream of being a professional illustrator was possibly not the most sensible thing I have ever done. But it was something that I had to try or else I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life.
Anyway, a few months in to my new life I started to get really nervous that things were moving slowly and maybe I should go back to my sensible, regularly paid full time job.
But suddenly from out of the blue I received a message from Anne Moore Armstrong who had seen some of my work on twitter and asked if I would be interested in signing for Bright and developing ideas for picture books.
And all my worries went away.
So, yes, I do have a lot of reasons to be so grateful to Anne and Bright, but also, I’m grateful that Twitter exists and Anne happened to see some of the stuff I tweeted that day.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out – or anyone not in the industry but who potentially could be? Where do they start and how should they go about building a portfolio of work?
[David] I think finding a focus to your work builds a real confidence in what you do. I didn’t really think my work was good enough until I started to focus on specifically drawing picture books.
Once I grasped this particular area of illustration and really focussed my attention on it a number of things started to happen and opportunities opened up.
Finding an area of illustration — maybe editorial, marketing, picture books, etc — in which you think your work – and you personally fit, is important I think.
From The Bear and the Piano, by David Litchfield. Published by Frances Lincoln.
Everyone is making art these days! How do you get noticed?
[Nicola] You never know where you will get work from, I have had people offer me jobs after seeing work on my website, online competitions, self promotional post, Facebook, twitter, from exhibitions I have done, trade shows, and of course, mostly through my agent. If you can’t get an agent, you can still join the AOI or SCWBI. Personally I would recommend having an agent. Then they do the job for you and you can focus on illustration.
Examples of Nicky’s designs for Art Licensing. If you’re interested in working with Nicky for greetings cards or stationary, you can see more and get in touch [here](/uk/art-licensing).
[Becca] When I was at art school I was seeing a lot of work that I liked on design websites, and I started submitting to them. I knew it was a long shot, but I figured that I didn’t have anything to lose. I put my work out there wherever I though it would fit. I submitted to competitions and emailed art directors every few months. I also kept a website and blog where I posted new work almost weekly. I had no idea who or if anyone was even noticing, but things started coming in. Very, very slow at first, and like I said before I did a lot of things for free just to get my name out there.
Cover artwork by Becca Stadtlander for the Classics Unfolded range by Frances Lincoln — commended by illustration blogger, Sara Barnes: and cover work for prolific author, Tracy Chevalier, published by E.P. Dutton.
[David] I know, the internet has really opened it up for people to promote their work and encourage them to create. Which is of course brilliant and amazing but also makes things quite crowded.
I teach art & design students one day a week and what I always tell them is that they have to find a way of standing out from a very big, humungous crowd. Which is tricky. I tell them to think of a creative way to promote your work and hopefully get attention.
When I did the 365 Drawing A Day project a few years ago it was — at the time — a fairly unusual thing to do. Posting a new image on-line for the world to see and critique got my work a fair bit of interest, not necessarily because all the drawings were great (in fact, on a bad day, some were absolutely terrible), it’s because it captured the attention of people and got them involved in what I was doing.
Having said that, I think the best advice I have heard about breaking into the career that you love is from the great actor and comedian Steve Martin who said: “Be so good they can’t ignore you”
Which is also true.
The cover art for Perijee and Me, by Ross Montgomery, published by Faber & Faber and a piece with Agent Lucie Luddington for a Bright Educational project, both David Litchfield.
David Litchfield on TEDX: “On the 1st July 2010, David Litchfield made a life-changing decision. He decided to do one drawing every day for a year, and make the drawings available online for people to react to and critique. It became a monumental project… ” David’s Ted talk was organised by Kayte Judge who you can reach via twitter — @kaytejudge
See David’s TedX talk here.
If you’d like to work with the artists featured in this blog, you can reach us via email here.
Follow David, Nicky and Becca on twitter:
If you’re an artist looking for representation we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch here.