Amelia’s Magazine | Becoming A Successful Illustrator: An interview with illustrator, publisher and author Derek Brazell

Understanding Illustration_cover_dancing bear

Illustration guru Derek Brazell has an awesome amount of projects on the go – as well as being a successful illustrator in his own right he also works for the Association of Illustrators, publishes the illustration industry bible Varoom, and has recently co-written three essential books about illustration. His first book with collaborator and cohort Jo Davies was Making Great Illustration, (read our review right here), and below he introduces his two most recent publications – Becoming A Successful Illustrator and Understanding Illustration. Read on, and glean some essential advice…

Derek Brazell_portrait

Last year you published Becoming A Successful Illustrator. Why do you think it is so important for illustrators to know more about the business? Do you think it is an especially difficult industry to work in and if so why?
It seems all creative industries can be an initial struggle to get established in, and tenacity and loads of enthusiasm are really important. Co-author, Jo Davies and I wanted to help illustrators get a grip on the side of the business which isn’t the artwork side. If you want to be an illustrator, you also want to make some income from creating artwork, and that means having an understanding of the industry so you can thrive within it. Just having an artistic talent isn’t always enough. So we cover topics in the book including Illustration and the world of work; Working for clients; The art of self-promotion; Getting your work seen; Securing work; Finance and legalities and added in an activities section covering Understanding fees, Promotional strategy, Skills audit, Where to work and Costing commissions.

For this book, Jo and I wanted to combine our varied experiences in the illustration world, both as illustrators since the 1980’s, and myself through a thorough understanding of copyright, licensing and negotiating and Jo’s longstanding teaching experience as professor of illustration at Plymouth University – our ‘insider’ knowledge. We knew we wanted to combine strong, contemporary visuals with solid advice, coupled with first hand quotes from illustrators from across a range of experience – newer artists as well as more established ones. This turned out to be a successful approach to illuminating illustration business, and gives the book a unique voice and visual style.

Becoming a Successful Illustrator cover

How did you decide upon the illustrators that were commissioned for inclusion in the book?
We were keen to break up the chapters in a visual way, and the best solution to that was to commission five illustrators to create a piece around the number of the chapter they were asked to illustrate. It was important that they all looked different, with varied approaches to their artwork, so both Jo and I went back to our research and selected illustrators we liked and then discussed our long list. Some had been taught by Jo at Plymouth University and others were people whose work we generally admired.


What is the single most important thing an illustrator should know before embarking on a new piece of work for a client?
The brief is ultimately the most important element of a commission, as that is what starts off the creative process. And even if it’s a fairly open brief, it’s important to know the parameters of a job. But a close second is what rights are being requested from you by the client, and does the fee you’re asking reflect those rights accurately?

Understanding Illustration_Audrey Niff

Understanding Illustration is a sumptuous volume that was published this year and focuses on the work of a selection of illustrators. How did you choose the ones included and was it difficult choice?
Jo and I spent ages deciding who we thought would best suit Understanding Illustration. There are four sections covering Traditional Uses, Documentary, Message and Off the Printed Page, and we wanted each image to reveal something about the subject in the 21st Century, whether demonstrating the power of illustration to communicate (such as Luba Lukova highlighting social issues and Veronica Lawlor exposing the neglect after the New Orleans flooding disaster), revealing the breath of subjects it deals with, examining the way that illustration functions across a diversity of platform and reflecting on the way that artists create.

So we took a long list and got ruthless with who we thought would really demonstrate the points we were raising with each of the four sections. It meant we ended up with a wonderful diversity of projects: Emma Houlston’s seven foot high monsters for Mulberry fashion house catwalk show, Jan Pienkowski’s delightful silhouette fairy tale images, Victor Ambrus’ battle drawings for Time Team and Richard Johnson’s reportage sketches from Afghanistan.

Understanding Illustration_Message

Can you tell us a bit more about the project?
With Understanding Illustration we wanted to provide a snapshot of what is happening with illustration at this time internationally and emphasise that illustration continues to be powerful – culturally, politically and commercially. And also that the individual illustrator is still important and valued in the creation of imagery, that illustration contributes to other fields of knowledge, working as it does with science, history, conservation, and that it is a vast and evolving subject, constantly re-defining itself, in fascinating ways. So showing amazing work, but also the thinking behind each project.

Understanding Illustration_KristjanaW

What has been your favourite project to work on recently and why?
I feel really passionate about illustration, it’s great to continue to be immersed in that world, so all projects involved with it are enjoyable. Jo and I organized a launch event for Understanding Illustration at Foyles bookstore earlier in the year, and that was great to work on. We invited Sara Fanelli and George Butler, who are both in the book, to speak on the projects we’d featured, and they were really entertaining speakers. Illustrators are so often really nice, generous people.

Understanding Illustration_EmmaH

How does your collaboration with Jo Davies work?
Jo’s often come up with the concept for a book, and then we brainstorm it, spending time on the structure and what’s required and how a reader will approach it. We don’t think people start our books at the beginning and go methodically through, but more probably dip in and out – so it’s got to function well in both contexts. Once we know what we’re doing we divide texts up and write them separately but then send them back and forth for comments – and that seems to work well. Sometimes when I read them back I can’t remember if I did them or Jo did! Unless I interviewed a certain artist, of course. Jo’s great fun to work with as she has a fantastically positive attitude and a really sharp mind.

Understanding Illustration 1

Why do you think that illustration continues to be such an important medium today, and what can it contribute to the visual landscape that perhaps a photograph cannot? 
Illustration has a unique ability to explain a concept and illuminate an idea, but also to be less literal than a photograph, although obviously both disciplines can blur together and produce amazing artwork. Illustration brings so many personal voices to the table, something that possibly is more challenging to create in photography.

Understanding Illustration-2

As well a working at the AOI you also publish Varoom magazine, how do you split your time between these two outlets?
Varoom takes up a substantial amount of my time at the AOI, and it’s great working with editor, John O’Reilly, whom I liaise with over themes and content (plus proof reading and liaising with the designers and printer). I also write as one of the magazine’s contributing editors on Reportage illustration. I feel proud of the depth of writing on illustration in Varoom, and believe it gives a fantastic interrogative platform to the art form. The rest of my time at the AOI is involved with working with other visual artists’ rights organisations including the British Copyright Council on protecting illustrators rights, which are always under threat, running the illustration research network, VaroomLab (we’re holding a conference called Interpretation with Arts University Bournemouth in September), supporting the membership department, and lots of other things!


How on earth do you churn out the volume of work that you create? What is your secret to such large scale productivity? I am in awe…
It’s exhausting! Doing a full time job and writing complement each other fairly well, as they’re different areas for me, but we wrote Becoming A Successful Illustrator and Understanding Illustration at the same time, for two different publishers, AVA and A&C Black (subsequently AVA was bought by Bloomsbury, so they ended up under the same publishers’ imprints). That meant sidelining my social life for quite some time. Friends were moaning I never saw them for a year, and culture took a back seat. But I’m back having some fun again now.

What other projects do you have lined up and what are you most looking forward to doing during the rest of 2014?
Jo and I have continued promoting our three books (they were all recently featured in Pick Me Up fair’s bookstore) but currently I’m taking a rest from writing books and doing more artwork for myself – working on decorative tiles (on cardboard) and I’ve started a project on trees, my favourite growing things. Something where I can paint a few leaves and think ‘Yep, done some art today’.

Categories ,A&C Black, ,AOI, ,Association of Illustrators, ,Author, ,AVA, ,Becoming A Successful Illustrator, ,Bloomsbury, ,Costing commissions, ,Derek Brazell, ,documentary, ,Emma Houlston, ,George Butler, ,illustration, ,interview, ,Jan Pienkowski, ,Jo Davies, ,John O’Reilly, ,Luba Lukova, ,Making Great Illustration, ,Message and Off the Printed Page, ,Pick Me Up, ,Plymouth University, ,Promotional strategy, ,Richard Johnson, ,Sara Fanelli, ,Skills audit, ,The art of self-promotion; Getting your work seen; Securing work; Finance and legalities, ,Traditional Uses, ,Understanding fees, ,Understanding Illustration, ,Varoom, ,VaroomLab, ,Veronica Lawlor, ,Victor Ambrus, ,Where to work

Similar Posts: