Josie Shenoy: Day in the life of an Illustrator
I’m always interested in other people’s career choices and how they are able to pursue their creative interests while making a decent living. I first met illustrator Josie Shenoy a few years ago at a ‘Make it, Sell it’ speed mentoring event I ran at the British Library. She produces amazing illustrations and has experience of working both for herself and big brands – her work is stocked in the Whitechapel Gallery, Foyles and Wellcome Collection.
A year later I invited Josie her to a ‘show and tell’ event at the British Library to see our amazing Maps collections first hand and meet our Maps Curator, Tom Harper. We inspired her to create a new piece of work in response to the British Library archive, which is now one of her bestselling designs.
Hi Josie. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hello! I am a London-based illustrator, and I work in my studio amongst a community of talented designer-makers at Cockpit Arts, Deptford. My work showcases my love of pattern, decoration and drawing, and is often influenced by the natural world, folklore and a love of storytelling. Alongside taking on commissions and freelance illustration work, I design collections for print and textiles. Drawing is at the heart of my creative practice, and I love the idea of crafting images. My work also often features vintage colour-ways, intricate collage and traditional print methods fused with digital processes. My own product range currently features greeting cards, lighting, stationery and prints, and is stocked in the Wellcome Collection, Foyles and Whitechapel Gallery. My freelance clients have so far included the Design Museum, Imperial War Museum, M&S and Somerset House.
How do you spend a typical day?
Every day is different and that's one reason why I love illustration. If I'm working to a deadline, my day would be spent at the studio at Cockpit. I share a studio with an amazing jeweller called Maud Traon, and the building is so friendly, there are always people to chat with- it really is a blessing, as illustration can be very solitary work. I would come into the studio in the morning and have a tea with Maud, then I go through my emails and make a list for the day.
Our studio has a lovely serene, quiet environment, and we sometimes put 6 Music or Radio 4 on in the background if there's a good programme on. If it's an illustrating day, I'll start with some sketching and make sure I'm away from the computer, as I find it such a distraction! Everything is done by hand, apart from the very last stages of the illustration, such as cleaning up or adjusting the colours on Photoshop.
My illustrations are quite intricate so it might take me a few days or weeks to finish one, starting from extensive research, to product placement and sampling. If I've got a show coming up, there might be lots of packing up to do, and working out display, pricing and packaging options- I've recently got into Pinterest and love using this to look at ideas.
Or if I'm right at the beginning of a project with a client, I might be visiting them, pitching my work or going through potential ideas. Lunch is always spent with people around the building and we take it in turns to have lunch in our studios- it is such a healthy thing to do to step away from our work at this time. Creatively, I work best in the afternoon, and often don't leave the studio until after 8, however I'm getting better at sticking to 'normal' hours!
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in setting up your own business?
I studied illustration at university, and although I couldn't have wished for a better degree, there have been so many extra things I have learnt in the professional world, that you aren't taught in education.
Finding work and getting my work shown to the right people was a challenge to begin with, and still is at times. It can be tricky making sure that work is lined up for the year, as I get so engrossed in my current projects that I don't always think ahead as much as I should. Also making sure my prices were right for wholesaling and retailing, and learning all the jargon and official processes in this line of work, for example going through contracts and agreements.
Making sure that all the correct terms and conditions are in each contract can be really hard, especially because you're so keen to impress the client, and chasing payments is another slightly sensitive issue that comes up from time to time- it's really important to make sure you word emails clearly and find the right tone of voice. And, of course, finance! I've learnt to make compromises when making the freelance leap, and I never really stop working - but this isn't really a problem when you do something that you love for a living.
What advice would you give to other illustrators looking to commercialise their work?
I'm so glad I studied illustration, because it has drummed a philosophy into my work, which is making sure that the image comes first. It's very easy to start thinking about the product or outcome first, or get busy with all the admin extras, and the illustration can get lost along the way even though this is the heart of your business. I think it's best to find your own way and not get too worried about what other illustrators are doing, just making work about a subject that you are passionate about and that you are proud of. I try not to think too much about what my 'target market' might like when it comes to making a new image, as this goes against everything I believe as an illustrator - and I think this is how the most sincere and successful artwork gets made.
The best piece of advice I can give would be to make the most of all the support that is available when you leave university. Becoming a commercial illustrator and the freelance world itself can be quite scary on your own, but IdeasTap, Cockpit Arts, the Design Trust and the Prince's Trust are all organisations that have helped me hugely along the way. Of course designers can also use the British Library’s Business & IP Centre.
Lastly, can you tell us about how you have been inspired by the Library’s Maps collection?
Last year, I attended the amazing maps tour at the British Library with Tom Harper and Fran. It was Tom's map tour that inspired me to create my latest illustration, 'River Thames' which has gone on to become my best-selling design. I wanted to create a map which wasn't accurate or practical, but which somehow resonated with people due to the images, words and textures that I included. I really love the narrative nature of illustration and strive to create work that makes the viewer feel like they're going on a journey and seeing something new each time they look at the image. After visiting the map tour, I became very interested in different artists that have explored the art and science of cartography (such as Grayson Perry and Sohei Nishino), and also old maps from Japan and India. I really love learning how and why they were crafted, and why they differ aesthetically from culture to culture.
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