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A freelance illustrator with almost 40 years of eclectic experience | #MemberSpotlight

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For this week’s member spotlight, we’re focusing on a freelance graphic designer and illustrator that’s managed to hold onto one client for almost 40 years.

William Webb has worked on everything from mural painting and portraits in oils to book illustration and digital design. He’s researched, written, designed and illustrated a series of children's historical activity books, produced historical interpretation signs and exhibition panels for the National Trust and even designed coins for the Royal Mint.

In short, he’s not don’t it all but he’s certainly done more than most. So today, we thought we’d get to know him a little better and allow him to share some words of wisdom with aspiring creatives and old hands alike.

How did you get into the industry?

After graduating from Ravensbourne Art College (now University) with a degree in Graphic Design I started lugging my heavy A2-size portfolio around London in the days when you could still meet people from large companies in their studios and offices. After two years I went to work in New York City where I freelanced for four years before coming back to the UK. 

Where are you based now and who do you work for?

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I currently live in St Leonards-On-Sea (next to Hastings). I work on a few projects a year with the Royal Mint, and I have a range of small businesses who use me, including one client I’ve kept since I left school (about 40 years ago!).    

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

If you asked me that earlier in my career, possibly something in the film industry. I loved creating miniature scenes; when I was living with my folks I built a 1/16 scale bombed French town in the garden, set it on fire and drove a radio controlled Sherman tank through it!

These days I am hoping to get some part-time work in social action and am currently volunteering with a local Foodbank; there is a lot of hardship where I live and problems such as people trafficking, homelessness and drug abuse. 

Can you explain your creative process? What makes it unique?

I’m not sure it’s particularly ‘unique’. When I get a project I do lots of research and loads of sketches, and go in all kinds of directions before honing a small number of concepts. I’m always looking for inspiration wherever I am - when I’m out I don’t take pictures of family or friends (obviously I used to take lots of my children) but I’ll take a picture of a manhole cover or a door with peeling paint!

I try not to throw stuff away because I might get inspired by it years later, or I’ll return to a rejected idea for a different job or a personal project.

How would you describe your style?

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I don’t have a trademark style, I’m a ‘generalist’, which all the online advice says is a no-no. Most ‘experts’ tell you to specialise. The thing is, I am someone who likes to try different things. It won’t get me work with an agency, but then a lot of them are oversubscribed or can’t get their artists enough work.

When I started out my linocutting was popular. Then there was a period when I seemed to get a lot of painting commissions. Over more than 35 years of work I’ve had to reinvent myself a few times. I probably get the most satisfaction from linocut printing and dip pen drawing.

Which individuals do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

This would be too long a list, and they aren’t ‘in the industry’ as such, but here are some standout names for me (in no particular order): Andy Warhol, Ray Harryhausen, William Blake, Edward Bawden, Frank Hampson, Gustave Doré, John Martin, Eric Fraser, EH Shephard, Hokusai, Albrecht Dürer, Alexander Calder and John Piper (the painter, not the Christian hedonist). I do like newer creatives but these guys are giants for me. 

What tips would you give to aspiring creatives looking for work?

I think it’s very tough finding work at the moment as there are lots of creatives chasing not enough work. A lot of the organisations I used to work for only use agencies now, so you can’t get through to anyone.

I try to concentrate on companies that offer repeat work - I spent too much time early on with clients who were unlikely to use me again. You also have to keep looking because as a client leaves a company you have a cosy relationship with, you lose the work because the new person wants to bring in their own people – so don’t get too comfy! 

What tips would you give to other professionals to get more clients?

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I think this question is asked a lot and to be honest, I’m not an expert as my experience has been up and down over the years - there have been times when I’ve had to supplement my income with non-creative work to get by. I don’t have a definitive answer other than persevere even when you feel no one is listening or taking any notice of you. Keep pushing doors no matter how discouraged you might feel.

If you believe what you do has value then hopefully you will be able to convince someone you are worth hiring. Over the years I have got clients from internet searches, joining online communities (where I got ideas about where to look and where to get more exposure rather than actual jobs), signing up to job sites like Indeed and even copying people’s names inside magazine and book covers in bookshops (I once got abuse from a shopkeeper for doing this!).

A long time ago I used Upwork/Elance when work was slow but I’m not sure that’s the best place to look for work nowadays because it is more oriented to regular users.  

What kind of tools/kit/software could you not do without?

I use a lot of physical tools – lino cutters, scalpel, dip pen, brushes etc – on a variety of materials from tracing paper and draft film to watercolour paper, scraperboard and linoleum. I like the energy and physicality involved in the process, and the happy accidents you get working with these which you don’t get using software. I then augment what I’ve created with Photoshop and a tablet pen.     

What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

I subscribe to lots of online creative magazines and follow people on Instagram and Behance; but most of my inspiration comes from art galleries, travelling to interesting places, and over the years I have built up an eclectic mix of books about anything - vintage matchbook covers, Japanese tin toys, misericords, classical art etc. My eldest son who is a graphic designer points out creatives I wouldn’t normally come across. 

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

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One of several projects I worked on for the National Trust was an exhibition in the Coach House at Quebec House, Westerham in Kent. Under the guidance of the Estate Manager John Rawlinson I created infographics, illustrations, maps, cutaway drawings showing the development of the property, and a large upright banner depicting the British army under General Wolfe scaling the cliffs with cannon, near the city of Quebec.   

What is the one thing that you would change about the industry?

I think the internet puts creative people under tremendous pressure these days, especially when you can readily see so much amazing work. We are bombarded with advice from ‘successful’ creatives working in idyllic studios on amazing projects with huge followings. It can easily get depressing!

With the internet as our filter we can have false expectations, or be put off; but do the creatives championed by the industry enjoy longevity in their chosen field? I love the fact that young creatives are promoted, but many more are not, and what about those who were lauded ten or twenty years ago?

Perhaps they are doing the same thing and no one is interested any more, or perhaps they had to change their career because they couldn’t pay the mortgage, or maybe they are still doing inspired work. Perhaps, like footballers, creative people have to be prepared for a different path in the future – but I’m not sure how the creative industry can respond to this.  

Any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

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I think I will use this space to plug some helps – DACS is an organisation which, for a small fee, pays you annual royalties for your work published in books, magazines or on TV, as long as you retain the copyright. ALCS do the same thing for authors of articles. It’s just a way of supplementing your income every year for just a small amount of your time.

I also recycle illustrations I have created for clients, which I still have the copyright for, and sell them on sites like Redbubble. I use them as is or repurpose them – I squeeze what I can out of old images, sometimes creating several alternative versions, and get a monthly top-up to my regular income.

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