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How James Birks moved from engineering to illustration | #MemberSpotlight

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You can never predict who is going to be the next portrait subject of Freelance Illustrator James Birks. We've been keeping an eye on his beautiful profile for a while, and each time a new release comes, we are equally amazed and surprised by the clear-cut precision of his works, as well as the distinctive style behind each portrait.

James describes his own style as being halfway through a graphic novel and traditional portraiture, and we can see where that comes from. Originally an engineer, James spent some time to retrain at the dawn of his thirties and is now a highly skilled illustrator with unwavering creative spirit.

In this Member Spotlight, we are learning more about James Birks, certainly one of the most talented illustrators in the Creativepool community.


How did you get into the industry?

I didn’t enter the industry until I was in my early thirties, before then I was an engineer. I reached a point where I just had to do something creative so I was fortunate enough to be able to take a career break and retrain. I attended Shillington Design College in London which allowed me to build up a good enough portfolio to get my first job as a graphic designer.

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

I’m currently based in Hertfordshire and I work for myself. I’ve been a freelance graphic designer since 2016, although in recent years I’ve been doing more and more illustration work. I’ve got lots of lovely clients ranging from the veterinary to the finance sector. My work has developed somewhat over the last year or two and I now focus primarily on portraiture.

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

Moping. I think I’d be quite unfulfilled by now if I wasn’t doing something creative. Who knows what I would be doing.


Can you explain your creative process?

I love to draw people who I find interesting. Once I’ve identified somebody I’d like to draw, I scour the web looking for a great reference image. I then spend some time studying the person and really getting to know their face, every nook and cranny. Then I put pen to paper, which is really Apple pencil to iPad. I sketch out the main shape of the head and then block in the prominent light and shade areas. I then start moulding the form from there, gradually getting tighter and tighter on the areas that matter, such as the eyes and mouth. I like to have well defined features, whilst keeping the overall brush marks loose and painterly.

How would you describe your style?

I think my work sits somewhere between traditional portraiture and graphic novel.


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

I’m inspired by so many people and things that the list could be endless, but I love illustrated movie posters from the 80s. Drew Struzan (who created the Back to Future and Indian Jones posters, to name a few) is an absolute legend. I would just love to be him. What an amazing time it must have been to be an illustrator.

If you had to pick one ideal client/employer, who would that be and why?

I would love to create a portrait for the cover of the New Yorker magazine. I love how they incorporate so much creative work into the publication.

How has technology affected the way you work?

Immensely, I now draw all of my portraits digitally. I resisted this for some time as it didn’t feel authentic, but I persisted and now I adore working digitally. It allows me to experiment quicker (and with less mess) than traditional methods. I still love getting my hands dirty mind, but I often find myself tapping the paper twice to undo something. It’s quite strange.


What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

There’s so much interesting, fascinating and creative stuff in the world that it’s hard not to be inspired everyday. But eating well, sleeping well and exercising all keep my creative brain in check. 

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

My portrait of Jonathan van Tam. It’s not actually my favourite illustration, but the impact it had made me feel very proud. I drew it during lock-down because I just loved JVT, his wonderful way with words and his pragmatism amidst the most ridiculous questioning from the British media. Shortly after posting it on social media, JVT actually got in touch (Somehow he’d come across it), and asked if he could buy it as a gift for Mrs VT. I was blown away, firstly that he’d seen it and secondly that he liked it. I of course did not want any remuneration for it and after some lovely email exchanges I had a copy printed on beautiful paper and sent to him. It was really fun and felt like something nice and wholesome amidst the daily gloom of Covid.​

How do you recharge away from the office?

The usual stuff I guess. I like to run, cook, eat, watch films. Things that I can do with my brain switched off.

What is one tip for other aspiring creatives looking for work?

Don’t compare yourself to others, be yourself and just keep pushing. Get your shit in front of as many eyes as possible and never stop learning.


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

The financial side. Pricing illustration work and particularly licencing can be tricky and I just wish there was more transparency

Any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

Tough question. There are so many wonderful resources available nowadays it can be overwhelming. I could list a thousand websites and books so I would just say consume. Consume as much as humanly possible. It doesn’t have to industry specific content because you can learn valuable things from absolutely anything. 


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