Emer Tumilty caught our attention with her whimsical graphic illustrations. Emer fills us in on why freelancing is the right fit, how to learn from your ‘mistakes’, and how other areas influence her style. Living Casual is where you’ll find some of Emer’s limited editions of wonder.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? The path I took to being a freelance illustrator was not a straight one at all!
I went to Glasgow School of Art, first to study architecture, then to do visual communication, specialising in illustration. As an illustration graduate I was aware that the path for graduation wasn’t clear cut — there aren’t really any in-house illustrator jobs like there are for graphic design. And at the time being a freelancer wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I didn’t have a clear plan in the beginning.
I was lucky enough to be offered a space in a print studio with another illustrator soon after graduating, and we set up a small screen printing business (while both working part time in bars and restaurants, as we didn’t have any investment or funding). We worked on small scale printing jobs — record sleeves, posters, textile printing, and workshops with local charities and schools. It was a steep learning curve, and pretty intense working two jobs to cover large overheads for the print business. While we learnt a lot and had some tremendously rewarding experiences, we realised it wasn’t what we wanted to do in the long term, So we called it a day after 2 years and pursued different things.
That’s when I started putting all my time and energy into my solo freelance work, and when that part of my career really began.
‘Study what you want to study, not what other people think you should do.’
Do you ever wish you were a freelancer or in-house designer? I spent the early part of my freelance life wishing I wasn’t a freelancer, and even had a few job interviews for “real jobs”, as I used to call them. Looking back I’m very grateful to those people who didn’t hire me!
The insecurity of self employment was hard to get used to at the start, but as time passed I learnt to accept the ebb and flow of self employed working, and learnt how to use space between jobs more wisely — to design products, or to start a new collaboration.
As a freelance illustrator I’ve had the chance to work on some really amazing jobs that just wouldn’t have been possible if I worked for someone else, and I can balance working for clients with spending time on my own practice. I feel really lucky to have that creative freedom.
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? I don’t see myself as having a single style, maybe a couple of different ones that overlap and intertwine, that come from a combination of sources—studying architecture, my interest in constructivism, my love of old diagrams. I was a total maths and physics geek at school, so I’m into geometry and playing with the boundaries of what’s possible within a set of rules.
I think the idea of reaching your style, like it’s one single thing that is the key to your success, can put quite a lot of pressure on a creative person. What if you want to experiment with something new? I think that if you keep making a lot of work, whether that’s for someone else or just for yourself, and you look (properly look) at a lot of stuff (books, films, people, buildings, nature, the world around you) you’ll naturally find an aesthetic that is all yours – that comes from your own experiences, and not just from looking at other people’s instagram feeds.
‘Taking time off is not a sign of weakness. Get enough sleep, see your mates.’
What have been some of your biggest disasters and how have you learnt from it? I’ve had loads of disasters, but I’ve learnt that looking at them as disasters doesn’t help. As a freelancer you’re constantly going into the unknown. You equip yourself as much as you can for new experiences, but there’s always going to be something that is out of your control. I’ve learnt to embrace that, and when things go wrong, to use it as an opportunity for creative problem solving, so that with each new job you add another skill or piece of knowledge to your designer’s tool kit.
What career advice would you give your 16yr old self? Study what you want to study, not what other people think you should do. Making a career out of your passion might not make you mega bucks straight away, but if you persevere and have patience, the hard work does pay off eventually, and you’ll be happier in the long run.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. Getting to where you want to be takes time. Be patient and enjoy the journey.
2. Use your contacts, ask for help, ask for favours. You don’t get anywhere by working completely alone.
3. You always deserve to get paid for your work. Be wary of people offering exposure, they’re trying to take advantage of your enthusiasm. If they have respect for you and your work, they’ll want to pay you for it.
4. Working hard is important but it’s even more important to look after yourself. Taking time off is not a sign of weakness. Get enough sleep, see your mates. Freelance work can be very tough on your physical and mental health if you let it take over – looking after those aspects of your life will make you a happier and more productive person in the long run.