For Glasgow-based illustrator, Libby Walker, deciding what artistic discipline to specialise in pre-uni proved tricky, given her enthusiasm for painting, sculpting, jewelry-making and graphic design. However, after being accepted on to Edinburgh College of Art’s Illustration course, Libby has never looked back.
Since graduating in 2009 Libby has established her own business, collaborated with a whole host of artists from across the creative industries and has worked on projects for the likes of Jo Malone, Estee Lauder and Waterstones.
Here, Libby reveals her design inspirations, the realities of owning your own business and why she loves it, and offers advice to those looking to start a career within the creative industries.
Hi, I’m Libby Walker and I own Libby Walker Illustration.
Tell us a bit about your career path to becoming an illustrator.
I graduated with a BA(Hons) Illustration from Edinburgh College of Art in 2009 and set up as a sole trader a year later. I had a part time job working in a gallery and gift shop while I worked on illustration projects and set up every weekend at Sloans Market. The markets were hard work, especially over winter, but they were useful for getting my work known and establishing a customer base.
My career path has many offshoots and has been influenced by the many creatives I have met along the way thanks to stall holding and studio spaces. There’s too many to mention here but each one of them has inspired me in one way or another.
Did you always want to become an illustrator?
I always knew I wanted to go to art school, so in that respect I grew up knowing that I would get involved in the creative industries somehow. Most adults didn’t need any more that “I’m going to art school” to assure them that I was on some sort of path.
However, I had no idea what I wanted to specialise in as I enjoyed so many different disciplines. I applied to art school with a Jenny Saville and Alison Watt inspired painted portfolio, and had an ambition of Saatchi buying my whole degree show.
However, painting fell out of favour and I went through moments where I wanted to become a sculptor, jeweler and a pattern designer and graphic designer.
However, when ECA offered me a first year illustration foundation course, I saw it as an opportunity to continue working in many different artistic mediums. I answered briefs with photography, plush character toys, wallpaper design and more.
Reveling in the joy of applied illustration, my style slowly evolved into a highly detailed linework form with minimal colour and maximum detail. I mainly use pen and ink and gouache paint, which lends itself well to screen-printing.
When did you decide to set up Libby Walker Illustration? Was it a daunting prospect initially?
Post-art school I looked for a long time for specific illustration jobs. Without a larger portfolio it was a non-starter. I couldn’t afford an internship so the natural progression was to create my own job.
Thanks to the resources of ico ico Creative, I was linked up with an advisor to support me through the process of setting up as a sole trader. After signing up for a few bookkeeping and business start-up courses with the help of Business Gateway, I was given the tools to help me hit the ground running.
Can you describe an average working day and the range of works you produce?
My studio set up is in a space in the Hidden Lane, a community of studios in Finnieston, Glasgow. I set up a studio that works as an open studio and shop.
A typical day starts with email answering, order checking and postage runs if need be. Then I get to work on my most recent commissions before restocking the shop with cards and necessary items. It’s always easier when all the business related jobs are out of the way.
What are your favourite aspects of being an illustrator?
My independence. Its a joy not to be tied to a certain space at a certain time. You have to be determined and motivated when there’s nobody there telling you when you should be working. However, I think more people should have the opportunity to work the hours that fit around their lives more readily.
I worked constantly for 6 years to get to the point that I could feel that this is a financially supportive way of life. Once I established this, I decided to take 5 months off to tour New Zealand in a campervan so I could return to work with a fresher focus.
This was partially possible thanks to the understanding of stockists and clients. I could still work but obviously from much farther away. It was a total dream to experience and one of the joys of working for yourself.
The simple joy of creating something form nothing that someone wants to then pay for is still a buzz that drives what I do. It’s unbelievable and still excites me every time.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of this project and the chance to work alongside like-minded individuals. Animation was something I wanted to get involved in for a long time but I always found it a bit daunting to approach.
The second highlight has to be the recent launch of my shop. I was so overwhelmed by the amount of people that came along. I was really touched that old clients and customers as well as friends and family came along to celebrate with me.
Thanks to the support of those around me and my inner drive, I left both of these events feeling like I’d tackled a challenge head on and really achieved something, which is the best of both worlds really.
What projects have you got lined up over the next few months?
I’m currently working on a project for the Grosvener Hilton hotel. This is a commission of 4 large artworks that will sit in the foyer to illustrate the history of the hotel from 1840 to the present day. It’s extremely detailed and will hopefully be completed by Christmas. Prints and cards of the final pieces will also be available to buy from the hotel.
As well as this I’m also working on a range of cards inspired by the sights of Falkirk after being contacted by the tourist shop there.
I have another personal project in the work but that’s a bit of a secret at the moment. I can say, however, that it will involve booking some time in the screenprinting studio!
How would you like to see Libby Walker Illustration develop?
I would like to grow the product range and retail side of my business more. To do this I need more time to focus on creating new designs and establishing links with more stockists. This is near impossible to do while creating commissions for other clients.
It would be a difficult decision to make but I’m considering dropping the commercial illustration side to expand a more successful retail business. The day I had my own till was more exciting than seeing my work in print, so that was pretty telling as to where I would like to take my company next.
Hopefully this could be built up to give me freedom to work on some personal artworks, pushing my career in a different path yet.
Have you got your eye on any other illustrators and designers at the moment?
Of course. It’s hard not to feel anxious that you’re never creating enough thanks to the constant stream of Instagram and social media.
However, I do enjoy following the lives and works of contemporary creatives from all over the world. A few artists I love are Cinta Vidal, Kirsty Whiten, David Booth, Andrew Rae, Dan Funderburgh , Alasdair Gray, and my hero, Grayson Perry.
What I love about these artists is that they all apply their art to different to variety of contexts to question the way we live and what we surround ourselves with.
Why is it so important to continue chasing a creative career in the field that you’re so passionate about?
I think it’s vital because you’re striving after something you love. You’re not doing it for the money. As my gran often frequented, by getting involved in something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s all about balancing lifestyle and happiness.
What advice would you give to those who are finding their feet in the design industry?
There is never one route to success. When looking back at how most of my work has come to me, it has mainly been from work that people have seen or from people I have met along the way. So the best advice I can give is: create create create!
Get yourself out there, meet people and don’t be too scared to fail, as often it will lead you on to success. On occasion, it can be a solitary profession so it’s always good to search for studios with other creatives. Talking over and being inspired by how others approach problems is really useful. Other options are to get an illustration agent, which is much easier if you’re more focused than me.
It takes times and has many turns, be patient, be brave, be determined, brave and look after yourself. Burn out has affected many around me including myself. I couldn’t be more delighted in the life I have created with illustration at the heart of it. Don’t despair, it’s worth it. Now, go create something!