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How did you get started in illustration? After I got my degree in illustration from Falmouth University in Falmouth, United Kingdom, I didn’t go straight into pure illustration; I entered a competition in my final year of university for a packaging concept project that landed me an internship as a graphic designer at London-based design firm Design Bridge. I worked there for six years but would always try to illustrate on the projects we were working on. This motivated me to become a full-time illustrator, and I learned a lot from being involved in projects for various brands.

What personal experiences have most influenced your work or style, and what media do you enjoy working in the most? Since having lived in London for almost ten years, I’m heavily inspired by the city and all that is going on. Most of my inspiration comes from visiting places in person and taking in the surrounding environment. My influences come from seeing people in situations and moments that I then re-create through illustration. Often, I will take photos when wandering around to reference later or do quick drawings of potential locations to create work from.

I enjoy working with colored pencils and paper initially because I find that looseness enables me to ideate quickly. Once I’m happy with a rough drawing, I work digitally on a Wacom tablet to redraw and finalize the illustration. In the latter stage, I add more precision and consideration to the shapes, colors and forms.

You recently teamed up with design firm This Way Up and created a new visual identity for Harrogate Spring Water, a water brand that has a legacy extending to the 16th century. What was it like working with a historic brand, and how did you incorporate research into your illustrations? Working with Harrogate’s rich heritage and history was a real privilege. I spent a fair bit of time looking at old paintings and photographs of the Harrogate Pump room in particular. Examining other artists’ work and more detailed reference photos meant I had a good starting point to work in the architectural details. Another interesting factor was the brief of creating work within diamond facets; I had to research how light played off each shape and looked to the physical bottle for inspiration.

On many projects, I will create a large reference folder for the subject matter, covering various perspectives and angles of the subject. Researching the subject matter often leads to more accurate and believable output. It’s often the tiny details that help create a convincing illustration. Doing the initial research also means understanding how far you can abstract and play with the elements while ensuring they remain recognizable.

Tell us about some of your favorite commissioned projects. What did you learn from them? I recently worked on a poster for a music festival, and it was great fun in the initial stages to work fast and spend time exploring potential concepts. I enjoy the stage of work where you are trying to find the composition and ideas loosely while discovering the best idea to take forward.

Another favorite was a commission for a mural in London’s Covent Garden district. The challenge was considering the scale and how it would translate away from the working screen, but it was particularly exciting knowing that people would be able to see this in real life. I find any project that goes and lives out in the real world has a special buzz to it.

What is your biggest challenge as a freelance illustrator? Managing myself. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the great agency Handsome Frank, which has given me great structure and support. Freelancing was a drastic change from being around others in a busy studio to becoming more isolated and having to discipline yourself and manage your time. I’ve found it’s essential to get outside, create your own structured week and develop something that resembles a routine.

With everything so artificially involved through technology, I hope the future of illustration still emphasizes human expression and craftsmanship.”

You also create a lot of personal projects. Do you find that fuels your inspiration or changes your approach to commercial work? Personal projects are a great way of steering commissioned work into a particular style or subject matter. I enjoy tackling various subjects and experimenting with ways to push my style through color or adding new stylistic treatments. I balance personal work by creating self-initiated illustrations in between commissions or in the evenings.

One of the most rewarding aspects of personal work is that there are no criteria. Much of what you’re doing is simply pushing your style around a subject matter of your choice. Over time, I find these projects change how I work on commissions through the tools I choose to work with or the introduction of particular elements I developed through creating personal work.

What profit centers could illustrators explore besides commissioned work? Setting up a print shop or supplying your work to a store that sells prints. I have not fully explored other streams of work, but I know illustrators who create an array of products from which they generate income.

What excites you about illustration right now? With the technological advances of recent times, I feel that digital illustration, in particular, has become more accessible with tablets and drawing software apps like Procreate and Photoshop improving and more impressive digital brushes and effects. However, with these new tools, I’ve noticed a handful of illustrators reverting to traditional media, using pastels, paints and other more hands-on tools to create finished pieces. Perhaps it’s pushing back against all things screen-based or just finding greater enjoyment in working physically with traditional materials. With everything so artificially involved through technology, I hope the future of illustration still emphasizes human expression and craftsmanship.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Spend a good amount of time drawing, as it helps improve compositions and is the basis for most forms of illustration. It’s important to create work you enjoy and push your style, as that and your ability to execute it make you stand out. A question for some illustrators is whether to have a range of styles or one particular style. I think that if you’re looking for commissions, having a strong, identifiable visual language is important.

Another way to get attention from potential commissions is by creating work that considers commercial appeal, perhaps through using specific colors or integrating a logo. I found investing more time into planning images during the sketching stage to be helpful in my working process. Going straight into work and rendering it will often not make the image more successful if you’re unhappy with the layout and composition. Having a place to share your work online is also extremely helpful in getting your work seen by the right people and securing commissions. ca

Charlie Davis is a keen observer of nature, architecture, and people and their tales. He’s always looking for inspiration. Beginning with a sketch on paper, Davis works in Photoshop to refine his drawings, carefully considering lighting, atmosphere and texture and working them into his final illustrations.


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