Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Snowtrees: A collaboration with Dr. Ed Garland


Our friend and long-term Inkymole collaborator Ed Garland is finally on Instagram, after moving away years ago and becoming Dr. Ed. This is good news.

After meeting up with him for a weekend recently, I’ve been thinking of all the projects we worked on together. Obviously I hope there will be more now that his gruelling study schedule has eased off, but I wanted to share a few as they emerged at a time when social media was still new, and were therefore only seen by the people who received a copy, attended an exhibition, or were part of the project.

This is Snowtrees. We had just put up a big installation called ‘The Witches’ in the repurposed church building of our regular clients TBWA\Manchester, for which Ed had written the words, and we were in the van on the M6 driving home, knackered and full of chips. I checked my email. It was mid-October and, thinking ahead, I’d asked Ed to write a piece for our annual Christmas mailing, which would take a different form every year. I would illustrate whatever he wrote. His story was in, and I read it; crying, because it was so beautiful and it was exactly what I’d hoped for. Even a little more than that, in fact.

I made a black and white ink illustration to go with it, indulging my longing for eerie stories to illustrate and my love of all things creepy and atmospheric. (Whenever the opportunity arose for some personal or promotional work, this is often the direction it would take). We had a 1000 copies printed to A3 in navy blue ink, foldable to A6 (sorry Kelly, who did all the folding). They were addressed individually and sealed with a tiny label, and it stood like a Christmas card with a snowflake-tree on one side, inspired by a duotone 1950s fold-out birthday card we’d had on the studio wall for years.

And there it was. Ed will probably do the thing people often do when confronted with old work — shrugging off my praise, pointing out all the things that are ‘wrong’ with it, maybe even cringing a little— but I love this piece of writing, and more importantly, I love the creative response it triggered in me. Although I too can see things I would do differently now, I love the outcome.


I woke up under the Snowtrees in a cradle of roots. The branches dripped sunlit water around my head. I’d been told about this forest. “It attracts the wrong crowd”, I’d heard. I wasn’t convinced. I could hear wolves treading icy crackles somewhere almost close, and cold crept in where my coat didn’t meet my trousers. But I didn’t want to move. I was happy looking straight ahead at the branches tickling the sharp blue morning. Snowtrees had perfect fractal features at this time of year, and there wasn’t long to wait before they expired. Today or tomorrow they’d come apart all at once, in whispering white-gold explosions. 

One tree becomes a thousand pale fragments, making a soft, deep cover for the ground. The whole forest bursts into a shimmering blizzard and then a freezing flatness. People witnessing this feel a release, as with fireworks and demolitions, and great distance is travelled to be within it.  I was, by some forgotten accident, in a prime position, if only it would happen before I got too cold. Sniffing and howling from the wolves now, and I thought about the tension my absence might be causing at home. They weren’t expecting me at any particular time, and the sun seemed to say I wasn’t worryingly late, yet. I could hear others arriving to watch. 

“Any minute now, someday soon” we said, and wondered why anyone wouldn’t want to be here.





Wednesday, May 04, 2022

“…but how long did it take you get your STYLE’?”

Created in paper and polystyrene for Arjo Wiggins Fine Papers, about 1997/8.

I do a lot of talks and seminars for schools and colleges, and one of the questions I get asked the most is “how important is it to have a ‘style’?” — followed by “how long did it take you to get your own style”?

My answer to this is not straightforward. Have a quick scan down the sample images in this post — they’re all from the same period of about 7 years, from graduation onward. You can see what was going on; I’d graduated with a portfolio of wildly ambitious 3D work, built pieces for the stage, costumes and models as well as poster designs and storyboards and illustrations full of lettering and ink. I basically wanted to do Everything — and, I would pretty much go on to do that, but for a young illustrator starting out the resultant folio was what clients described as ‘exciting but confusing’.

How would I get this (pre-internet) 3D work to them? It would all need photographing — would the client pay me for that? If they give me a brief, how do they know what they’ll get back — will it look like this, or this?

A magazine editorial from about 1998/9. This one actually got me a LOT of work.

I liked to build stuff, I loved to work on a large scale with pastel pencils (you can see an A0 example of that in the slides) AND with my inks, and I loved lettering (I won awards for it and was one of the earliest to posit hand lettering as a ‘thing’ you could commission in its own right — more on that in a separate blog) but I was also fascinated by digital; check out the work I did for the panto dames!

The Panto Dames! I did not know how to use layers properly.

Clumsy but wildly energetic, I was quite literally laughing as I drew them; they were real panto dames. What made people like this image is the energy and the humour — those things eclipsed the lack of sophistication (and lack of Wacom tablet) in the rendering. I only had a mouse then, so you can see that the work here was created with an ink drawing which was then digitally coloured.

I don’t get horses, at all, but at one point found myself doing a monthly slot for Your Horse magazine. Woah there.
And this was one of a series for a bestselling gardening magazine. I had about a week to do each one, and regular income was very welcome at that time! They looked the same as the flyers I was simultaneously creating for the pirate radio station I was working on.

I went on to have multiple magazine series in that style, so I suppose it could be argued that was ‘a style’ for a while — but running simultaneously, I also illustrated a magazine column once a month with built, almost set-like pieces which were photographed, like this (yes, this one involved baking real bread; real baby clothes and a real self-made poppet doll. I ate none of them afterwards, and the illusatration actually lasted for years).

All of these images are very ‘me’, but it isn’t one style and it’s definitely not one medium.

In fact, I’ve always viewed this multi-medium thing as a blessing, not a curse. It means I’ve been able to turn my hand to a vast array of opportunities that, had I favoured one style, medium or way of working at the exclusion of all others, I would not have been willing or able to tackle. It’s made me flexible, adaptable and, in a lot of cases, bold — the ‘sure, I can do that!’ approach (say yes now, worry about it later). A 15m mural in paint? Check. A 3D piece to illustrate a spoken word poem? Check. Detailed pen and ink drawings for a ghost story? Check. Fast digital pieces for an urgent editorial? Check. A set of animated GIFS? Check.

You get the idea.

Some people use pseudonyms to identify their different styles — an example is Toby Leigh who also works as Tobatron, or Tim McDonagh who also works as Avril15. Those identities exist to make sure you know which of their worlds you’re in, and that’s definitely something I’ve thought about over and over again — I even have the names worked out. But I’ve never actually done it…maybe I still will, though, and it could work for you, too, with careful consideration and enough work to hang under each banner — this is important, as clients will need to see that you’re well-versed and a ‘safe pair of hands’ in all of the styles or identities you put forward.

Personal work from a book project that I shelved. I might un-shelve it — though the artwork would look very different today! (the toddler in the picture is now a post-grad).
These two lettering pieces were created in an Edinburgh hotel room, in the middle of what felt like a little breakdown. I was creatively stuck, feeling at a dead end, and really upset, but was away for the week teaching degree students about illustration — so feeling like a massive fraud. My partner suggested combining some of the lettering I’d been doing for years with flowers and plants, and some of the darker stuff I liked to draw. Thank god he did; the work that nervously emerged that week saved me, and set me on the path for the next decade.

Over time, my ways of working all combined to create a body of work that utilises several different media, but hangs together as a look which is definitely ‘mine’. And the ‘mine’ comes via the movement, the energy, the content and the vibe, rather than the equipment I used to make it.

So I say, DO NOT worry about ‘style’ — if you see someone who looks to have a really strong visual language or colour scheme or way of working, they’ve likely had a long time to develop that. Maybe they don’t actually HAVE other ways of working — maybe they can’t! — or maybe they just don’t feel comfortable offering more than one look. And what you probably won’t see are the mountains of work that led to what you see in front of you.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Sleep gone to the devil? It’s horrible, but this is what’s been helping me.

 

From ‘Only If You Dare’ - illustration by me, for Josh Allen’s book. I know just how this poor little lad feels! ©Sarah J. Coleman

Oh no...I'm awake.

My sleep disruption began many months ago as a product of, I think, a combination of pandemic, work anxieties, and a major hormonal re-wiring (the whole dashboard out, y’know the kind).

I would get to sleep just fine, but wakefulness would boot me out of my slumber every single night, always around 3am, and last anywhere from an hour to…the rest of the night.

I’m my own boss, which means that technically I can ‘get up when I want’, but I really can’t; I still have a full 8+ hours of work every single day, clients depending on me, and the other, myriad responsibilities that come with running a small company. And the later I would get up, the worse I felt — physically and emotionally, since there’s still a stigma attached to ‘people who get up late’ — and the more I worried about the whole thing.

I recently shared a couple of things on social media and in my regular newsreel which clearly rang a bell with a lot of people, so I’m sharing and expanding on those things here.

So, the causes of waking up I couldn’t do an awful lot about, but I could control how I felt before I went to sleep, during wakefulness and during the day. I quickly established that late caffeine was one factor (after about 20 years of being completely caffeine free, I’d gradually discovered the joys of strong fresh-ground coffee again over lockdown). So no coffee after 2pm — 3m at a push. After that, all-decaf-everything.

The I worked out that I was eating too late at night — has to be before 8pm now — ideally at 7 — or I really am affected. Your poor body’s trying to digest when you should be asleep!

THEN I realised I was still on my phone answering email and messages late at night, sometimes actually in bed — in my book, that’s a a dirty habit, but one I found I’d slacked into (that’s why they call it ‘sleep hygiene’).

And finally, I clicked that I wasn’t getting enough fresh air during the day; I’m a lifelong gym-goer but it’s not the same as the outdoors and vitamin D, so I started walking. A LOT. Didn’t matter when — sometimes a ‘commute to work’ walk of a mile, sometimes a mid-afternoon one of 3 miles or more, sometimes one of those plus another mile just before bed, or just a tiny ten minute walk by itself last thing, if I really couldn’t manage to get out in the daytime. Walking is famously underrated, and it comes with the opportunity for thinking time, podcasts, checking out some new music, or just silence.

And this bit is important:

I realised that when I was waking up (always around 3am) I was bothered and anxious — but I wasn’t waking up BECAUSE I was bothered and anxious, I was anxious because I had found myself suddenly awake. I changed my mindset (which took a little while) and flipped it around, so that when I would find myself awake, instead of going “ohhh nooooo I’m awake this is hell not this again I don’t want to be” I would blink a bit and go, “oh, ok! Looks like I’m awake. OK; no bother. We’ve been here before. You woke up because you were just a bit hot/thirsty/uncomfortable. Have a drink of water, shuffle about, maybe go for a wee, try again.”

And THAT last change has made the biggest difference. I don’t fret about it any more, and I remind myself that in the middle of the night, because you have no other distractions — even simple visual distractions like other people and your surroundings — your mind focuses entirely on what it’s worrying about, so those things seem HUGE and insurmountable.

And they are not!

If I really, truly cannot get back to sleep, I get up and try to sleep somewhere else — one of the sofas, I’ve even tried the cool living room floor — or in extreme circumstances I go to my desk because I may as well be doing ‘something’. But I don’t set my expectation too high; doing any little job in the middle of the night is a bonus, but your aim is to get into bed and back to sleep.

©Sarah J. Coleman

The other important realisation that unfolded over time was that a good night starts with a good evening.

These are the steps we take now, to make sure we give ourselves the best chance of sleeping, and staying asleep. These aren’t ads, by the way; they’re just what we use, and what we like. No-one has paid me to write this! (I don’t do that, before anyone else asks).

1. No caffeine after 2pm.
OK 3 at a push, but anything after that will probably cost you in the small hours!

2. A couple of hours before bed: hot chocolate with reishi mushroom and ashwaganda.
Both help the body to unwind and get ready for sleep. You don’t need to add sugar, but we add a dash of maple syrup.

3. If hot chocolate’s too much for that time of night, we swear by Pukka ‘Sleepy Tea’

4. About half an hour before bed: a couple of Lemellos.
These little all-natural capsules take the edge off the white noise of anxiety and worries safely, and without any after/side effects (and no dependency issues).

5. I’ll have my earphones next to me in bed in case I wake up, and if I do I’ll listen to some rain sounds (very soothing, especially for someone like me who loves any tale beginning with ‘it was a dark and stormy night’) or do some breathing.

They both sound a bit clichéd, but there’s a reason for that — they work!

Remember: this is just what’s worked for me, over two years or so of trial and error, and changing one thing at a time then observing the result. Some of these might work for you too. They might not, but give them a go!

Hope it helps.

Sleeping…but awake...but OK with it, actually. ©Sarah J. Coleman

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

If you're not driving a BMW by the time you're 24...


~ Visual Communcation BA (Hons.) Class of 1993; BIAD's Gosta Green site ~


My university tutor, colleague and leader of the degree course that set me on my path, Bal Nandra, died on Monday morning. That's him leaning on the railings, big watch, big glasses.

I write this with still-surprised eyebrows, because it doesn't seem like enough time has passed for this to be a reality. I graduated from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in 1993, with a first in Visual Communication, a special award for typographic innovation and a strange and ambitious portfolio that no-one really knew what to do with, filled with lettering, 3D sculptures, ink stuff and theatrical vigour. 

Bal told me and my mate Mel, also on the course, that 'illustrators don't get firsts'.  Naturally that triggered our silent 'Watch This' response [read that in the Brummie accent we would both have had at the time; hers authentic, mine unconsciously adopted over the terms]. Actually, neither of us were that fussed about a grade, wanting to just do our best and find our direction, until at some point we were threatened (again by Bal) with the dangling carrot of 'if you keep this up ladies, you're on track for a first'. 

No pressure then.

As well as the cold dread of being summoned to his office at the end of the studio for unknown misdemeanours or feedback was the gameshow-feel thrill of being late to a briefing (think Squid Game rather than Countdown) which Mel and I were, often. Sometimes because we had done the obligatory all-nighter to meet a deadline, sometimes because we were skip-diving for that precious mineral 'foamboard', chunks of which would be thrown with wanton disregard for its cost into the college bins, or scrap metals we could fashion our mad built things from.

Sometimes we were late because we were getting a toffee flapjack and more tea from the canteen. 

And sometimes, we just hid because, being diligent students, it would be in our direction that any extra-curricular or industry briefs would come hurling, Exocet-style, into an already gruelling 26-briefs-in-one-term* schedule.

Bal was also the deliverer of sobering career advice. When he told us that we could consider ourselves failures if we weren't driving a BMW by the time we were 24, we simultaneously laughed in his face and trembled with horror; we knew that was a horrifically unlikely scenario for either of us. At 24, I had a yellow 2CV that my boyfriend had cheerfully passed onto me in lieu of a weed debt someone couldn't pay him, and Mel had a Micra. Both were sound motors, but not German, and not fast. When I picked Bal up in my BMW to go for cake and coffee with our other tutor Mike Simkin, a great many years later, the joke was not lost on him. 

He was funny and strict and stern, extremely ambitious for every one of us and, though we didn't really appreciate it at the time, highly successful in his field and incredibly well-respected as a designer in his own right. He kept up this work till the very end, continuing his relationship with his alma mater Ravensbourne College, and I know I channeled a little of his knowing-wink seriousness in my own teaching, as I went on to degree and higher ed teaching sessions over the years that followed.

Thanks Bal. 

~ Balvir Singh Nandra / 25th August 1951 – 28th February 2022 ~

*True story.


~ Sarah, not about to look into the cost of a BMW, Spring 1993; grounds of BIAD's Gosta Green site ~










Tuesday, January 11, 2022

To My Insurance Company.

I've been engaged in a battle to renew my business insurance lately. It's gone on for an unbelievably long time, because I can't find anyone to insure us properly.

When asked about the reasons why companies are - I'm going to say 'scared' - to insure my business, it seems to boil down to two things. 

1) The majority of my work over the last ten years or so is for North American clients. This seems to terrify them.

2) The insurers seem hell bent on protecting the mythically vulnerable from me - rather than the other way round, in a system that protects other people from being copied by me.

As most illustrators will know, we are most at risk from being ripped off by a third party - including large companies and startlingly high-profile corporations who ought to know better (we all know who I'm talking about, insert your own anecdote here) than we are at risk of plotting to rip them off, or each other.

These things are new. Or maybe they only seem new; when I reflect on it, there's been a growing sense of anxiety in the voices of those I speak to every time I ring up for annual insurance. It explains why I've moved companies so often. It contextualises why I'm constantly getting new quotes, from fewer and fewer companies. And it reveals an increasingly protect-the-big-guys modus operandi; if a missed deadline means Acme PLC can't make their print date, if Josephine Bloggs thinks I've copied one of their images, if XYZ Corporation has to clean paint up off their floor on one of the astonishingly rare occasions I have to work on-site, they're protected - what I mean is, I'll get help from my insurance company to defend myself, as long as whoever I need to defend myself against is in the UK, of course.

But as the explicit and very focussed questioning of each company I've spoken with has revealed, if I see someone using or copying my work commercially, their insurance policy affords me no protection.


In a nut shell, they don't have my back.

This might seem like moaning, but it is not. This is my business, built up over almost 30 years, and heavily, deeply invested in, year on year, not only materially, but emotionally and spiritually, and with an incalculable amount of hard work. When I hand over money to protect that investment, I expect more than my iPad and my paper stacks to be protected.


The reason this issue creeps beyond the scope of the mere mathematical technicality of insuring a few Apple devices and a load of inks against fire or theft is because it speaks to the much larger issue of copyright theft, and image and style misappropriation, an article about which I've been sketching out for months. Why are insurers more nervous about me stealing a company's work? Why is there a chilly gaping hole where there should be a policy that kicks in to help me take action the moment a serious IP theft is discovered and the infringer decides, for once, to fight back?

No, really, it's OK; I've paid four figures for a 'comprehensive' insurance policy, but you sit back lads; I'll tackle that one myself, especially the new NFT 'company' who've decided to mint my work for their own profits (true story).

Now, of course it's my job and my responsibility to take all the available steps to make sure my work is 'protected', so that I don't need to take action against anyone. It's quite literally part of my job; reading the contracts; knowing what I'm signing; reading the NDAs. Use lo-res images online and watermark and make online images non-grabable if you must, but none of these things will protect an image from being misappropriated, whether that's reproduced through mimicry or used and applied wholesale. People who aren't so intimate with the subject will talk sympathetically but a little glibly about 'registering' the copyright of an image, but copyright is covered by the Berne Convention; the right to be identified as the creator of your own work at the point of creation, rather than as a result of 'registering' it in some way, is a human right.

One or two companies said they would insure me to make a claim - but only if, like me, the infringing party was based in the UK. To date, I've had infringements in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Germany - and just one or two in the UK. And those are the ones I know about.

So why isn't that taken into consideration when a company draws up an insurance policy for a creative business? Perhaps I'm being too picky; I can certainly be that. But it just feels like an absolute basic protection in the contemporary creative market.

Here's the email I sent to the most recent insurance company I spoke with at length. I was fed up with saying the same things, and I decided to write it down so they could actually address the problems within their policies.

Whether they read it or not I have no idea; the courtesy of a response wasn't forthcoming.

But I'm posting it here and sharing it in on order that other companies, who might actually offer positively evolved, customer-centric policies which are different from those I've dived into thus far, can talk to me if they see fit. 

And having learned during the course of my research that a great many illustrators have no insurance AT ALL, I'm hoping I'll hear from other creatives who have had the same problem, or are looking for insurance at the moment - and more helpfully, from people who have solved the issue with an appropriate policy.

If you have thoughts or experiences that resonate, I welcome them. In the meantime, I have my pens pencils and hardware covered, but for now, I feel that the industry is set to either put this issue even further at arm's length, as it decides it's too 'Wild West' an issue to successfully navigate/monetise, or it will be forced to evolve in a fast-moving world of NFTs, social media and visibility, and in doing so recognise what the dark matter, the heavyweight inner core of any creative business that needs protecting actually is - its creations.


Some details in this email have been slightly changed for purposes of making the scenarios easily understood by the recipients who are outside the illustration industry, and to avoid identifying individuals. 

If at times it sounds like I'm explaining what an illustrator is or does, it's because that's exactly what I've had to do. Many times over.

~ † ~

Dear Insurance Company Person,

Thank you for forwarding the documents for the policy you propose for my business, after speaking with me on the phone for forty minutes yesterday. I'm unable to accept it, because it does not cover my needs.

What’s quite bewildering at the moment is that, after almost 30 years in this trade - and I mean, wholeheartedly, professionally immersed in nothing but this trade, on a worldwide scale - I’m finding an increasing reluctance to insure me and my business. For over 20 of those years I’ve worked with American and Canadian clients, and clients elsewhere in the world, and historically it’s never been ‘a problem’ nor subject to any additional questioning or clauses.

Over the last 4-5 years I’ve seen a creeping nervousness around that, and I do not see a reason why this would be. I don’t know of a single case of an illustrator being sued - for any reason - other than by another illustrator  in cases of blatant copying. This happens - there was a case a few years ago of two American illustrators fighting it out over alleged copying, but it was eventually resolved without resort to legal means, which remains the preferred way of resolving such things. 

What I don’t see reflected in your policy, but do see happening around me frequently, is cases of the illustrator having to fight a case of having their own work infringed by companies - both small and large.

To cite one example, a couple of years ago the large high street chain **redacted but named in the email** copied a colleague’s very distinctive work; that colleague had to fight that case of (very blatant) copying, and that colleague 'dealt with it satisfactorily' and got the work withdrawn. It was 'cut and dried’. 

There are myriad examples of large clothing companies helping themselves to artists’ work online, without permission.

I myself have had to deal with over 60 copyright infringements of my work by other people to date - and I have dealt with them, successfully, without ever having to resort to legal means, because I know the business inside out and I know copyright - as it applies to my trade - inside out.

The only recent example I know of which speaks to the kind of scenario that form the basis of this particular fear from insurance companies, is this. A very, very well-known British high street chain hired a design agency (standard practice) for a campaign that involved an illustrator creating a ‘friendly monster’ for a Christmas campaign. They would have briefed the illustrator closely for such a high profile campaign, and the resulting monster, once it hit the internet, was immediately recognised as a close copy of a long-existing famous character illustrated by an equally famous illustrator.

The illustrator whose work had been copied, although within his rights to pursue the case, was maturely philosophical, resolving the issue with humour and grace:
 "Talk of legal action has flooded my Facebook feeds, but I won’t be pursuing that. Instead, I hope that advertising agencies and the big companies they work for, take care to credit creative people whose work they might reference. We have the finest children’s book writers and illustrators in the world – their work should be cherished and credited properly." 
The key issue though is even if legal action had been taken, it would have been the design agency hired by the company who was challenged, NOT the illustrator, as the design agency was responsible for the creative direction taken.
(In this case the illustrator, who was relatively inexperienced and no doubt very excited to have received the commission, was unlikely to have questioned their commissioner’s art direction.)

But if that illustrator had chosen to pursue a legal route (and presuming he has insured his business) he should surely have been able to do that with the backing and confidence of his insurers, to whom he had paid money to protect that business, the IP in which forms the substance of the business in a far more meaningful way than his easily-replaced pens and pencils.

Such cases are not common. But my point is that what I am way, way more at risk of having MY copyright infringed, than I am at risk of infringing someone else’s - my job is to create original images, and I have created thousands of them.


The other scenario an insurer might be fearful of, and one that has been posited to me many times now, is an illustrator delivering work late, and thus triggering a sequence of damaging events such as missed print deadlines. But I have never heard of this happening; when deadlines are running close, they are modified, or the work is adapted to suit the timescale, or, in some cases, a client can choose to go with an other artist or buy stock imagery to meet their deadline - there is always a way forward, and I know because I have been involved in some extremely high profile jobs with their attendant deadlines, budgets and pressures, and successfully carried out every one of them.

I’m not suggesting that legal challenges never come up, but the emphasis on a client suing an illustrator suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of the job of an illustrator and the industry at large. And this fear of legal challenges seems to be infiltrating the insurance industry, even those pitching themselves as specialists to the creative industries.

I can’t go with your policy as it’s not right for me, but I welcome the opportunity to highlight why that is, and why the thinking underpinning the policy feels flawed, and outdated.

All the best,
Sarah.
~ † ~



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