Jim Field needs no introduction, but we will give him one anyway: Jim is the bestselling, prize-winning illustrator of the Oi Frog and Friends series (written by Kes Gray), books such as The Squirrels Who Squabbled (written by Rachel Bright), and the Rabbit & Bear series (written by Julian Gough). He is also the author-illustrator of Monsieur Roscoe on Holiday.
Thanks so much for answering some questions for us, Jim, we really appreciate it. To start us off, there are so many ways someone can become an illustrator. Can you tell us about your journey?
Well, I sort of fell into becoming a picture book illustrator because I was at a crossroads in my career.
Going back earlier, my dream job for as long as I can remember was to make cartoons. I wanted to be an animator or an animation director. I was fascinated with cartoons as a kid (Warner Bros classics and later shows like Ren and Stimpy), and I loved the idea of drawing a sequence of pictures and seeing it come to life. So, I followed my dream and studied Animation from 1999-2002 at Hull School of Art & Design.
After graduating, I worked on a portfolio of a variety of illustration styles – it was a mess, I was all over the place stylistically: vector graphics, Jamie Hewlett Gorillaz-inspired painty graffiti, etched and scratchy ink trying to be like Steadman. I would get the odd commission now and then for newspapers and magazines, but no regular work. I was focused more on animation, and I paired up with my uni buddy Benji Davies who I think needs little introduction to anyone in the picture book world. In 2005, Benji and I formed an animation duo called Frater, and we were repped by Partizan in Soho, London. Over nine or so years, we worked together, directing a variety of animated projects – commercials, music videos, short films, idents, TV documentaries – and our last project together was the animated film closing credits to ‘Filth’, based on Irvine Welsh’s book. A far cry from picture book illustration! Well, the work as an animation director was becoming harder and more competitive, and then it was just not financially possible to continue. Benji did his own thing and I had to do mine.
My chance came when art director Eliz Hüseyin spotted some of my work and gave me my first opportunity to illustrate a couple of fiction books for Kingfisher, an imprint of Macmillan. Thanks to Eliz, a year or so later, I met Chris Inns of Pan Macmillan, who was looking for an illustrator to pair with Peter Bently’s amazing text, Cats Ahoy! I leapt at the chance like a cat, and worked on some character design concepts, which thankfully Chris and Peter liked. This was my first chance to illustrate a picture book, and I wanted to do the absolute best work I could. I worked very hard on it for about six solid months, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. Miraculously, Cats Ahoy! won the picture book Roald Dahl Funny Prize. And after that, I changed my career path from animation to children’s book illustration.
It's incredible (and encouraging) that one or two key things can fully change the direction of a career - and how much of an impact one person, such as an art director, editor or agent, can have.
Did you have any preconceptions before you started illustrating and, if so, is being an illustrator what you expected?
I was doing the odd bit of freelance illustration work, but I didn’t know if I would have work from one day to the next. It was very stressful, both financially and in terms of the deadlines. I had newspaper commissions that had to be turned around in a few hours sometimes. I would say yes to pretty much any illustration work I was offered money for. The job as a picture book illustrator is different, as the projects are longer. Once you have ‘won’ the job, you know you have work for up to several months. I found this much more comforting to what I had known previously.
I could literally never have dreamed I would be in the situation I am in now. To work with amazing authors like Kes Gray, Rachel Bright and Julian Gough is a huge privilege – it’s crazy in the best possible way. To be in the top 10 illustrators, I seriously feel like an imposter.
But I love what I do. And I am very grateful to be where I am now.
What does a regular day look like for you?
I’ll get up at about 7am, have breakfast with my wife and daughter, then take our daughter to school (if it's my turn). Then I get my bike and head to the studio, which is a 10-minute cycle away. My studio is typically Parisian, it's more like an apartment.
I share the studio with two feature film producers, and I have my own studio room. I’ll get the kettle on and go through my emails with a cup of tea. Then, once the admin stuff is out the way, I’ll start drawing or art-working for whatever project I’m currently working on. Often, throughout the day, emails come in for approving a design decision, a Pantone for a cover for instance.
For example, recently I’ve been working closely with my art director at Hachette, Jen Stephenson, on the co-editions of Monsieur Roscoe. Many countries want a different name for Monsieur Roscoe (as it can be too difficult to pronounce), or a slightly different cover design. I’m trying to keep it consistent and so I need to oversee and approve each foreign edition.
When my stomach starts rumbling – LUNCH! – I’ll pop out to get something to eat at my desk, or sometimes go for lunch with my studio mates. Then, a much-needed coffee and back to work. At about 5.45pm I’ll head home, pick up our daughter from school and then switch to family life. Dinner, a bedtime story with our daughter, and bed. It’s very exciting!
What are some of the hidden challenges of being an illustrator?
You need to be able to manage yourself effectively. Your time – your skill – is worth money. Don’t undersell yourself. Ever. That’s difficult when you just start out – when you’re not sure if you're being paid fairly but you’re desperate to have any work. So you say yes to anything.
The AOI is excellent for illustrators starting out in the industry, with advice on how much a commission should be. Also, ask fellow illustrators you’re friends with how much they charged on a similar commission.
You also have to manage your accounts, paperwork, tax declarations, etc – all the dull stuff that sends me to sleep. That’s the biggest challenge!
What is the best thing about your job?
When you get to sign the books after an event and you get to meet the ‘fans’ of your books.
One of the best ever experiences I’ve had was after doing an Oi event with Kes Gray at Bath Festival. During the event, I had done a step-by-step Learn to Draw Frog for the children.
After the event Kes and I were signing books, then a mother was quite emotional as her son showed me his drawing. He was five years old, and she said, "he’s never drawn before."
That brought a big lump to my throat.
Well, without Jodie I wouldn’t be where I am now. For sure.
I didn’t have an agent for my first few picture books. I had no idea if what I was signing contractually was good or bad.
An agent is someone you can talk to, they are your guides into the book jungle!
Jodie is my hotline to the "Wise words of wisdom". Agents can help you make difficult career decisions. They help if someone has stolen your work. They help you if you’re up against a deadline and feel like you’re going to implode with stress (I speak from experience). They know the words to say to the publisher. They have the experience and knowledge and excellent contact with publishers.
It’s important to remember that you don’t work for the agent, the agent should work for you.
So, if I asked whether having an agent has helped your career?
It took it to levels I couldn’t have dreamed of.
Is it important for illustrators to have some sort of online presence – whether that’s a website, Instagram account, or similar – to showcase their work?
It’s essential now I think. It used to be very hard to get your work ‘seen’. You could advertise in folio books on the off-chance an art director or buyer sees your work. Now, you can get your work out ‘in the world’ for free. The only problem is… everyone else is doing the same, so you need to make your work stand out – somehow – and market yourself. Some illustrators are amazing at managing their online presence. My wife, who is a digital consultant, has helped me significantly with it recently.
Jim Field on Twitter.
Jim Field's website.
United Agents on Twitter.
United Agents' website.