How I became a fashion illustrator

Jacqueline Bissett lives in Sussex and has been a freelance fashion illustrator for nearly 35 years.

My job entails drawing mainly women from ‘lifestyle’ (book covers, magazine illustrations), to high fashion (live drawing events, websites, advertisements), high street (live drawing in shops, in store promotions) and with costume designers for films.

Jacqueline

The best thing about the work is that it’s varied and you never know what sort of job is coming from one week to the next, which is good if you have a short attention span like me.

The worst thing is that in difficult economic times the large campaigns are the first to be put on hold.

I do ‘live events’ – these have only really been happening in the past 10 to 12 years, and have given my career a real boost.

I love drawing in front of people and I’m pretty confident that I can draw someone in 12 minutes. For these I work at corporate events like at Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani, Ralph Lauren – mostly in their boutiques. I draw by hand (black ink, minimal colour) or digitally on a 12” iPad Pro with an Apple pencil – sometimes linked to a large screen so people can stand back and watch while I draw. It’s quite a performance when you do this, so confidence is key.

I’ve drawn for many luxury jewellery brands like Cartier, Bulgari, DeBeers, Van Cleef & Arpels, which sent me to work in countries across the Middle East.

You get to work in some amazingly posh hotels in London and Paris like Le Bristol, The Ritz, The Savoy, Claridges and visit places like LA and St Moritz. Sometimes it’s VERY glamourous and you get to see how the other half live. These jobs can be quite nerve-racking but once I get drawing I forget about where I am and just ‘get into the zone’

 

I was born in Bromsgrove, Worcs, a dull town that I couldn’t wait to leave.

I drew from an early age, probably around the age of seven, when I loved reading the Ladybird books – particularly Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast. I was quite a girly girl.

I used to marvel at the illustrations, they inspired me to draw. I always changed the outfits into different length skirts, colours etc – I was ‘designing’ but I had no idea what that was.

I drew pages and pages of figures. My dad was a draughtsman so there was plenty of paper around to draw on, this being the 1970s so, well before computers.

I loved school up until my O levels when I got distracted by the social life that high school seemed to bring, so I didn’t do well enough to get on a degree course. In fact I had no ambition at that age whatsoever.

Careers advice was minimal – hairdresser, air hostess, nurse, ASDA cashier – none of that appealed to me at all.

Luckily my mum never gave up trying and she knew that I was destined for a different life.

We used to have trips down to London, loved going to the theatre and shopping around Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. On one of those trips by chance we met the vice principal of Bournville School of Art. Mum and he got chatting and he told us that there was a BTEC fashion course, perfect for my few qualifications and involved doing art, but a little more specialised.

I applied and got accepted on the course. It was fantastic. I met loads of like-minded students and found that although sewing and pattern cutting were not for me, I excelled in the designing and illustrating.

At the end of the two years I was encouraged to apply to do another two-year HND course in fashion promotion and communication, where the emphasis was on promoting fashion, mainly by illustrating, but also photography and journalism.

Here we were taught by some freelance fashion illustrators such as Colin Barnes, Shari Peacock and Lynne Robinson.

I had a lucky break with Lynne at the end of the two years at Epsom School of Art (now UCA), who asked me to share a studio with her and ‘learn the ropes’.

There was a lot of work around in the eighties, particularly fashion forecasting. Lynne and I would work together drawing hundreds of figures for each publication. Those companies don’t exist anymore as the fashion business has changed SO much. Not all for the better, unfortunately.

It was great working with Lynne in a little Camden Town studio, I started to get more of my own work and things snowballed.

Work has been up and down over the years but the last 12 years. I’ve been with an illustration agency (www.illustrationweb.com) and work’s been a lot more consistent. Usually I have four or five jobs on at a time of varying sizes.

The agency has offices worldwide so if work goes quiet in one country, then another should bring in the work, though you do need to spend money on promotions and advertising from time to time.

To make a decent living as an illustrator, you have to be quite varied to suit a wide range of clients, though your style needs to be instantly recognisable. It’s tricky to get that balance and can take a number of years. But if you love drawing like I do, it’s no hardship. It’s good to keep ‘fine tuning’ your style and content but if you draw every day then you improve all of the time.

Areas of work that I cover are:

  • Beauty – eg makeup, exercise/yoga poses
  • Fashion – working with designers, drawing out their collections for presentation/promotional purposes
  • Book covers – I do a lot of women’s book covers including ‘chick lit’ author Katie Forde for the past five years
  • Magazine work is possibly the worst paid (no change in the whole of my career, from £100-£250 per sketch)
  • Website/social networks – from Facebook banners, Instagram profile pics to illustrations for entire web sites
  • In-Store illustrations
  • Advertising, Point of Sale, Swing tickets, window displays.
    So you can see how varied the work can be!

Finally, it’s really important to have a strong online presence, particularly on social networks.

There’s a lot of competition in illustration so you have to post new work daily.

Having been in the business so long it’s been interesting to see the changes. When I started out we used fax machines and sent work by post for someone to scan and be ‘print ready’.

Now the illustrator has to own their scanner, scan their artwork, clean it up on Photoshop and send it by email ‘print ready’, so there’s a lot more work involved sitting in front of a screen.

I would still thoroughly recommend life as an illustrator. I love being my own boss, choosing my hours and having the variety of jobs.

But I think you have to absolutely LOVE to draw!

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