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Illustration graduate Matthew Brazier, talks to us about his freelance career

Matthew graduated from Norwich University of the Arts in 2012 from BA (Hons) Illustration. Since graduating, he has illustrated for major publications such as Time Out, Reader’s Digest and The Washington Post.  

In this blog, he discusses his approach to illustration and how he forged his career as a freelancer.

Tell us about your practice

In my line of work, I create imagery to accompany editorial pieces for magazine and newspaper articles and features. I’ve worked for publications such as The Washington Post, Time Out, Reader’s Digest, The Big Issue, and The Hollywood Reporter amongst others.

Alongside my editorial/magazine work, I exhibit and sell prints through galleries, and I also do storyboard/conceptual work for design agencies – this can be a really fun change of pace, plus it’s really great seeing your sketches come to life when you see the advert on social media or TV!

Why did you choose to study Illustration at Norwich?

I really enjoyed my time at Norwich University of the Arts. I chose the University because I appreciated how the course was structured; with term-time projects geared towards industry, reflecting real world projects that you’re likely to encounter with clients. I loved all the printmaking facilities that the University offered, and the opportunities to exhibit work around the city.

During my time on the course, I was really inspired by the careers of the lecturers who taught me. They had a wealth of experience between them and offered advice which I still remember and keep in mind to this day.

I learnt a great deal about time management and collaboration during my time on the course, all of which are vital in my freelance practice. The course also offered fantastic drawing classes and allowed for a great deal of creative soul searching and discussion that led to finding and developing my creative voice.

“This career path can be challenging, but so rewarding and I’m really excited for what the future will bring!”

Can you tell us about your illustrative process – how do you stay creative?

I always keep a sketchbook going for ideas and trying out new things. I watch a lot of films and look at a variety of photography with a focus on lighting and composition, which often feeds its way back into my process.

I like to combine traditional drawing and printmaking techniques with digital tools. I’ll draw various elements, then create textures with paint and ink, before scanning them and combining them in Photoshop.

If I’m working on a more conceptual or narrative piece for a client, I’ll get sent a draft of the text to read, and then I’ll create a series of ‘roughs’ – multiple sketches depicting ideas taken from the text. The art director will then pick their preferred option(s) and I’ll work up the image to final. It’s very much a collaborative process with the art director, which I find very enjoyable. Good art directors will push you further than you think you can go, and help you produce your best work.

If I’m asked to work on a portrait for a client, the art director will send reference imagery for the person they want depicted and I’ll try to combine a number of these photos within my drawing so that I’m not basing it on one image. If it’s a very recognisable person, sometimes just working one image can make a viewer think ‘oh that nose is wrong’, so using multiple references can help create a fuller image.

How did you begin building a career after graduating?

The journey from being a student to building a career can be a long one, requiring persistence, hard work and dedication. I’m fortunate that I was able to graduate from Norwich with an initial portfolio of work that I was proud of and that art directors responded to when I sent out samples.

Networking can take time and sometimes you need a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time, but you do get out what you put in. If you put good work out there where people can see it (be it online with social media, or at exhibitions/gallery shows), you will find your audience.

One of my early commissions for Time Out London was actually commissioned based on my final degree show, and then that commission opened more doors for me. It is daunting at first, graduating with nothing ahead of you, you need to be a self-starter and make things happen for yourself. It’s all about snowballing work and building on your successes without resting on your laurels too much.

How have you found working in editorial?

Often editorial work requires tight deadlines, so you have to be ready to work quickly, reliably and effectively. For example, I used to edit a weekly column for The Big Issue, which then led to further work illustrating larger features for the publication, followed by cover illustrations, which was really exciting! The Big Issue Australia saw this work which then led them to commission me for a cover and one of my favourite projects to date, illustrating 12 short stories for their annual fiction edition.

Aside from your digital channels, do you show your work anywhere else?

I loved the exhibitions and group shows that our university course hosted, and I’ve been keen to be involved with shows alongside my editorial work.

After Norwich, I exhibited in Chelmsford, Southend, Hastings, London and then I managed to get my work in a couple of galleries in New York and Los Angeles. This led to a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment when film director Edgar Wright messaged me to say he bought one of the prints I had on show at his Official Baby Driver Art Show!

The reality of freelancing is that it can be quite tough at times, how do you navigate this?

Of course – alongside the excitement, freelance life can have its challenges. Chasing late invoices, negotiating contracts, filing tax returns and sending out promotional material to prospective clients can take up a lot of time that you’d much rather spend creating work, but they’re necessary to keep the work coming in.

Editorial work can also be a bit of a ‘peaks and troughs’ industry. Some illustrators might find initial success and consistent work, whereas others might find it takes a long time to build their client list and that they’ll be really busy for a few months before having a few quiet months.

Personal projects within these quiet periods can lead to new opportunities; it’s important to put work out there that you want to make, so you can prove to art directors you can do it. I always try to create work and I’m regularly updating and curating my portfolio, so that I can share new things with art directors – you don’t want to just send the same stuff over and over again.

Once I’ve worked with an art director, I’ll keep in touch with them and share new work. For me, this has led to future commissions, even when they move to new publications.

What advice would you give to current Illustration students?

If I could offer any advice to current students, I’d recommend discipline and flexibility – you need to be persistent, reliable, and have a good work ethic/output. Sometimes you can get tricky clients, so you need to be adaptable and willing to compromise.

I hope that students choose to follow their love of illustration into a professional practice, I still get a real kick out of seeing my work in print in publications, and I love creating imagery for clients.

You can discover more of Matthew’s work by visiting his website and Instagram.

Explore BA (Hons) Illustration