Living in Copenhagen, Denmark – Michelle makes a living selling her charming and playful illustrations through retail stores and her own online store. Hear from Michelle what it’s like running an online store, what she finds rewarding about running her own business and how she ended up being a full time illustrator.
How did you end up being a full time illustrator?
I took a photographic course when I just moved to Copenhagen. We had to do staged photography and I wanted to make photos with animals, crazy costumes, balloons and glitter on wild locations. This was not possible practically or economically so I started editing props into my photos. Slowly the collages became more and more like illustrations and today the photo element is non-existent.
I went to a few different schools but never completed any of them. They taught me a lot but in the end I just wanted to try and go full time with my illustrations and in this business you don’t need brilliant grades or paper on your skills. You “just” need a great portfolio.
Alongside attending the different courses I started selling some posters online and on small design markets and slowly I started seeing some interest from shops too. I did a lot of friends’ gig posters and CD covers for next to no money. But it is a good way to get started when you have no name or brand yet.
Your illustrations are so colourful and qwerky. Is this a style you’ve always had?
I think so yes. But my choice of techniques has changed a lot over the past few years. When I learn something new I do it a lot. Until I get a bit tired of it and want to try something new. For instance I am now quite caught up with using different brushes in Photoshop. This way of working is old news to a lot of people, but I never really explored it before.
I had a period a few years back when I really liked that there was an original piece of all my illustrations. Therefore I cut, glued and drew many of my posters. I am not too good with precision and as a result of that I really like cmd+z and the opportunity to change and rearrange elements in the computer using my electronic drawing pad + pen. I’m not good with vector and I love the way the lines feel more alive when you draw them by hand.
As an illustrator, how do you stay up to date with what’s happening in your industry?
Instagram is my best friend. I would actually say that Instagram is my primary source of information on the industry. Apart from that I go to design fairs 4-6 times a year to exhibit and sell my products wholesale. That is of course also a very good way to see what is happening.
Your online store has so many adorable prints. What’s one thing you’ve learnt from having an online store?
I think it is great to have one place that offers all my products. It is very rare that a store buys my entire collection so for the customer it’s good that they can get whatever they want at one store.
I would love to know a bit more about SEO options and all that internet magic that you can do to get more exposure. It is on my to do list to find a person that can help me on that. Oh and another thing that you might not consider when you open an online store – that you have to always be available to ship – or at least have someone babysitting your shop if you are away 🙂
It’s almost like having a cat!
What’s your process like from idea to finished piece?
Sometimes I know exactly how an illustration will look finished before I start. And these often end out as best sellers. The I <3 Ice Cream bear for instance. It took me only a few hours to get that one done. I was very determined and it was just a question of getting what’s inside my head out into the illustration.
Other times I spend a lot of time sketching and finalising on the computer. I use the computer to draw on most of the time when I finalise. I have an Wacom drawing pad and it gives me a lot of freedom to change and rearrange the objects I work with. Before I did a lot of things by hand, but as I have evolved my photoshop skills over the years this is now by far my preferred tool.
What’s the most rewarding part of running your own business?
I sometimes almost get dizzy then I think about how everything in my business depends on me making decisions and doing things. It is very frightening that it all stops if I do but at the same time the fact that I am in control of the direction is incredibly rewarding.
When something goes wrong I really feel it in my bones – but I feel it just as much when I succeed. And that is worth it. So far at least 🙂
What piece of advice do you have for someone wanting to become a freelance illustrator?
Don’t be afraid to engage in all sorts of voluntary jobs in the beginning. You really need some exposure and doing work for non profit organisations or friends in the beginning worked out very well for me.
Of course you should not keep on working for free – but offer your skills to projects or people you like or something that is for a good cause. Then you can build your portfolio with real cases and hopefully get some well paid jobs at some point.
And get going as soon as you can. Don’t wait till you’re done. To me it was so great to get started when I was in school. This way I was better suited to really work when I ended my education.