A conversation with Lisa Maltby, Illustrator and Lettering Artist

May 4, 2021

I’ve spoken to a few very talented artists from the games industry over the last year or so.

But you might be surprised to learn that there are other types of artist, too.

I know, right? The wonders of life never cease.

One such practioner is Lisa Maltby, an illustrator and lettering artist based in Sheffield, UK.

I first became familiar with Lisa’s work on LinkedIn, as she shared a number of useful posts from her own blog.

She was recently kind enough to answer some questions I had about her work and life as a freelance illustrator.

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One of Lisa’s food illustrations

ED: Hello Lisa, thank you for agreeing to chat about your work. Both your illustration and lettering are stylistically very bold, making consistent use of strong, contrasting colours. Is this something you naturally lean into, or is it a taste which is inspired by particular eras or styles of artwork?

LM: I think a bit of both. I naturally gravitate to bold colours but I think it’s always hard to know what influences that. I love work that leaves you feeling joyful so I think colour obviously reflects that.

I used to love looking through my Dad’s old record collection when I was a kid and I adored the surrealism and colour on illustrated album covers from the 70s and 80s.

ED: Which tools do you most commonly use? Is it a mix of traditional and digital? Do you have any personal preferences in this respect?

LM: I use both traditional and digital tools and I always flit between the two. I like working digitally because it enables me to work in layers and adapt compositions or colour and this is hard to do using traditional methods. It also makes it easier for client amendments. However, there is nothing quite like painting and drawing in pencil so I enjoy this process for personal work. Lockdown made me crave a more tactile stuff so I’ve been doing more of it.

Parrots! Boss!

ED: Lettering, nature, food and pattern seem to be your most popular types of illustration. Do you have a particular favourite and if so, what is it you especially enjoy about working in that area?

LM: I like to combine both design and illustration in my work, so anything that involves thinking about composition inventively, incorporating ideas or illustrating things for purpose really interests me.

I like my work to have a message or an element of story, which is why illustrative lettering is such a lovely way of holding lots of elements together and providing a focal point – I get to be detailed whilst designing a clear message and I like those contrasting elements. I’m starting to work on much bigger and busier compositions too and this excites me – I like it when there’s scope for a lot of detail. 

ED: Are there any subjects you’ve been required to illustrate, or drawing methods that you’ve found particularly difficult over the years? In these cases is it just a question of practice, or are there different routes you’ve taken depending on the challenge?

LM: Yes, I love drawing people but they are HARD to draw! I have always adored really figurative work but find myself avoiding it because I know it will take all my brain energy to make sure all the limbs are anatomically correct.

I’ve done a lot of life drawing but it still takes a strong memory to replicate form so I tend to need a lot of reference. I end up trying to draw myself in the mirror or take photos of myself in weird poses! Always makes for a laugh when someone scrolls through my camera roll. 

ED: I hear your pain on the joys of drawing people! It sounds like you’ve adopted an approach that actually turns addressing the difficulties you face into a fun, creative part of the process.

I’ve known some artists avoid references because they feel like it’s cheating and by doing so, they’re increasing their reliance on references rather than cultivating a stronger understanding of form. I don’t necessarily agree, but as an active professional do you think there’s any truth in this?

LM: I think this is a strange sort of snobbery held by many in the art world. All the old masters used reference but it’s not seen this way because it’s classic portrait sitting or something. Times have also changed a lot since then – it’s unlikely you’ll find anyone willing to sit for you for ten hours every time you have a brief that needs figurative reference, unless you’re offering a good fee.

I do think drawing from life is important as practice to get a good understanding of form, but working commercially is often fast-paced and photographic reference is essential if you don’t have everything in front of you. I would just say to always have multiple reference shots so you’re not completely staring at one flat perspective and to keep sketchbooks for continual practice – it does help train your drawing memory for different subject matters.

Of course I’m speaking as someone who bases work on clear observation, whereas other artists work more abstractly so may not need as much.

ED: Is there a project or piece of work you are especially proud of and if so, what makes it special?

LM: I’m proud of projects for different reasons. I like to think my latest work is always my best because I’m always trying to improve. Sometimes work is important because it marks a season – my recent self portrait marked a shift in my work and personal life so it was an important piece for me. I’m also proud of projects that make a difference – I was part of a big illustration project at the start of my freelance career – around fifty artists were commissioned to illustrate huge elephant sculptures which were put on display around Sheffield and then auctioned off for charity.

It was a huge challenge for me because of the scale of it and the fact it was such a public project so early on in my solo career –  I felt the pressure! The elephant I illustrated raised just under £8000 for The Children’s Hospital Charity.

Lisa with said elephant

Background and transitioning into freelance

ED: Could you give some background as to what you were doing before you became a freelance illustrator? Had you studied arts at college and worked at a company, for example?

LM: I had done a foundation course and degree in illustration at Loughborough University before getting my first job in the creative industry. My early jobs were very ‘loosely’ creative – working for as a print operator and then a designer at an engineering company, working on all their marketing materials. I then worked as an agency designer for a number of years.

The variety of skills I had to learn stood me in good stead for freelancing – I learned a lot about communication, organising jobs, photography, typesetting, typography, marketing… remembering how many sugars people had in their tea.

Birdies!

ED: Had you always planned or dreamed of being a freelancer, or were there other factors that led to you making this decision?

LM: I always wanted to be an illustrator but I never wanted to work freelance – I always felt more comfortable in teams and the idea of freelancing petrified me! Unfortunately there aren’t too many permanent roles for full time illustrators so I knew I’d have to make the leap if I wanted that to happen, else juggle it around other jobs.

It was when my eldest son was just starting school and I’d just had my youngest that I realised I needed flexible work in order to share parenting responsibilities. I also wanted more opportunity to do art direction and bring more of my own ideas into the work. The benefit was that it pushed me to do something I perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have and it taught me I’m capable of more than I anticipated.

ED: What was the response like from the people around you? Were family and friends supportive, skeptical etc?

LM: Generally good! Though I think because I’d just had a baby some assumed I was simply giving up work to raise my kids – it was a bit frustrating trying to be taken seriously at first. Others were extremely supportive and totally encouraged my goals. You take for granted how important encouragement and support is until you go it alone in something. I’ve learned to surround myself with people like that, rather than those that roll their eyes at my ambitions.

Pretzel illustration

ED: I completely agree with that and think it’s important to make sure the environment you’re in is one conducive to your goals. But how do you stop yourself from just falling into an echo chamber of positive reinforcement? Hearing nothing but encouraging, positive feedback can sometimes be as dangerous as the opposite, as you’re not being forced to address shortcomings in your process.

LM: I don’t think having supportive people around you means having people who tell you what you want to hear all the time – sometimes they may point out ideas for development or other times be honest that something isn’t working. I really appreciate sharing a studio for this reason – we can be honest with each other about what’s working and what isn’t. I think it’s important to hold lightly any feedback that says your work is either brilliant or awful and seek feedback that gives you more understanding about where there’s potential instead.

ED: Did their thoughts effect your decision making at all? Had you already decided ‘This is what’s happening’ or did other people’s input somehow impact your judgement?

LM: I think any doubt placed on me made me more determined to prove a lot of people wrong. Sometimes this drive is healthy because it pushes you to do what you really want, and other times it can be damaging because there are always going to be people who disapprove of what you do and it can feel like you’re always pushing back against something. You have to work for your own fulfilment, not to appease others’ opinions.

ED: My LinkedIn is full of mentors and consultants reminding creatives of the importance of “Working for the demand, not for yourself”. Did you do any research into demand before going freelance?

LM: I had already been taking on small commissions and contacting people with my work but I didn’t have enough work of my own to sustain me and I was totally unsure if I would be able to scale this up. I think if you can research demand this is advisable, but I found myself in a position where I had to make a decision about my future far quicker than I anticipated – I just had to roll with it.

Thankfully I’m a very determined person when I’m passionate about something. It was tough though so I would always advise building up work beforehand if you can.

ED: On that note, do you think there are enough quality resources on ‘Becoming a Freelance illustrator’? Were there any resources you particularly benefited from and would suggest others look at, too? 

LM: Part of the reason I started writing my own blog was because I found it hard to find honest advice about an illustration career. It’s difficult because an illustration career is always going to be unpredictable, but I did feel that this meant many people were cagey about sharing their own experiences. There was lots of information from the Association of Illustrators that helped me to understand fees and licensing but very little around how to sell your work, make contacts, deal with rejection… all of the soft skills needed to be successful.

The most helpful things I read were more about marketing, design psychology and SEO than illustration. I realised I had to think like a business and not an artist. That’s the reason I wrote my down to earth course on the business side of illustration – aspects that are still not always taught in art schools.

Lettering in progress

The realities of freelancing

ED: A lot of artists I’ve known over the years never really considered their creative field as a potential profession. Rather, it was something they did for personal reasons (enjoyment, escape, expression, etc) that they eventually saw some demand for.

An issue I’ve seen sometimes occur as a result, is that the personal investment they make into their work can end up being at odds with the demands of a client. Professional feedback can be interpreted as personal criticism. Is this something you’ve ever come across and what advice would you give to someone who is experiencing this for the first time?

LM: I think I was already used to client feedback before freelancing but it certainly feels more personal when it’s 100% your own work. You have to be level-headed about feedback and not get too precious, which can be a challenge. There is, however, also feedback that is unhelpful and shows a lack of respect for your skills or time – you have to cultivate work relationships that have mutual respect because this contributes to the success of a project more than anything else.

There’s also a responsibility as a commercial artist to create work that is more about the effectiveness of the work than that of personal taste (and that works on both sides). The greater the connection with the people the work is aimed at, the more successful the project. 

ED: A similar issue is when a client tells an artist “I want your vision, your perspective, bring me something completely unique” but then spends the entire project dictating every single thing that the artist does. What is the best approach to handling projects such as these?

LM: Boundaries! If a client is completely open to the outcome I usually present previous projects and tell them how I would plan to create something before starting the work. I also have very clear terms that say how many sets of revisions are included before incurring an additional fee (I usually pre-quote projects rather than work for an ongoing day rate as this leaves too many things open-ended). If a client keeps changing their mind I politely remind them what stage we are on or give a polite warning that we’re approaching the final round of revisions.

I usually find that enquirers who don’t know what they want usually have low budgets or assume it is your hobby, so pricing jobs well or taking a deposit helps to weed out enquirers who aren’t taking the project seriously. A good client will reference past work and give you freedom to add your own input within specific boundaries.

They also usually have a clear budget!

ED: For a lot of people myself included, one of the major draws of freelancing is the idea of ‘being your own boss’. The fact is quite the opposite is true, as every client essentially becomes your boss when there is no-one sat between you and they.

Is this something you were prepared for in going freelance and what sort of new skills (be they organisational or communication based) did you need to develop to manage this?

LM: I aim to have partnerships with people rather than be dictated to (like you say, otherwise you may as well have an actual boss and a regular pay cheque!). Most of the people I work with are great and we trust each other to play our part in making the project successful – the best jobs  are where you both care more for the outcome than your own egos.

I think working for companies you genuinely admire helps, as well as for clients who genuinely appreciate what you have to offer (rather than those that just want the cheapest thing in the fastest time). There are of course jobs that are less enjoyable and you just have to crack on but boundaries are always helpful. I think the benefit of working independently is that no matter how bad a job gets you can always go for a walk or take a breather.

If it ever gets to the point where I can’t do that I’ll start applying for jobs!

ED: Agencies are often seen as good middle grounds for this. They can find and manage the clients while the artist focuses on the work. Have you ever used agencies and do you think there are any particular benefits/drawbacks?

LM: I would love to have an agent but I think it’s unrealistic to think they can solve all your problems – you still need to constantly promote yourself and work hard. Many agents have different focuses so it’s making sure you have a partnership that is mutually beneficial. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about bad agents but equally plenty of positive feedback about others, but the general consensus among represented illustrators is that it’s not a magic wand for getting constant work or big clients.

Getting an agent is also very difficult because it’s such a competitive industry – they get hundreds of enquiries a week so it’s whether it’s more beneficial to focus on promoting your work to paying clients than agents.

Cactus!!!

ED: Sure, in my own experience it’s been easy or tempting to think “I just need that *thing* to take care of X, Y, Z for me” without really considering the implications that ‘thing’ might have of its own. You need to pursue whatever works best for your situation and be level headed about what that situation actually is. In regards to self-promotion, what would you advise to an aspiring illustrator in this respect? Is it about regularly sharing work across social media, or are there any more direct, focused strategies you suggest they consider?

LM: Social media has definitely been key in getting work but it can equally be a distraction so it’s using time wisely. I think promotion will be different for each illustrator or designer so having a personal strategy is important. You need to learn who is most likely to buy into your work and bring your work to them, looking for where you see your work fitting in and then researching names of art directors or marketing managers to send samples to. Contacting people directly is important because they’re more likely to remember you. Working on good SEO is also important if you have a particular specialism or area of work.

ED: Finally, if you had the entire time you’ve been a freelancer over again, is there anything you would do differently and if so, why?

LM: I’d have a pseudonym. I hate working under my own name but I realise I’ve built up a reputation that now benefits me enough to keep it. I feel having your own name means that people see you as a person more than a business so you’re more likely to get requests to work for free out of the goodness of your heart. I’d like to remove any opportunity for bias and have people judge my work for what it is. That said, being personable is also a positive. I’m not changing my name to Bob just yet. 😉

Thank you to Lisa for taking the time to talk with me about her work.

You can follow her updates via Instagram and her website, which will also soon feature an online shop if you wish to purchase any pieces.

If you’re an aspiring freelance artist or are considered such a move yourself, then I would strongly advise giving her blog a read. She breaks down some important concepts like pricing and understanding the value of your own work into concise, accessible chunks that can otherwise take you a long time (and a fair amount of cash) to learn.

Thanks for reading!