The details in Toby Willsmer's beautiful illustrations are as fascinating as the countless career paths he's ventured into.
From web design to being a scuba diving instructor, from illustration to running a music label, we have collected some of the most topical elements from Toby's life and personality, a story that we are keen to listen to over and over again. A restless spirit, tireless and brilliant, which we hope we can crystalise in the article below.
For this Member Spotlight, we are getting to know one of the most inspirational creatives in the Creativepool community, a tale punctuated by amazing illustrations with which we fell in love at first sight.
How did you get into the industry?
I have a few grey hairs now and had a few different careers over time, from web designer and software developer, to scuba diving instructor! There has been a fair amount of natural progression to get me where I am today as I’m self taught in most things I've done, digital Illustration being one of them.
I’ve always been able to draw and started doing credible digital artwork in about 1995. Creating logos, retouching photos and art working images for friends' businesses. I was also making electronic music throughout the 90’s and ran a small label doing all the album cover artwork and in 1999 learning how to build my first website for it. Having built that website and getting to understand how to confidently code I naturally fell into building websites full time and ended up becoming a developer for over 15 years. All the time really wanting to be an artist and creating illustrations whilst having full time jobs. Doing late night painting sessions after work and long weekends learning techniques and trying to hone my style.
It took a while but by 2015 I was selling fine art prints of my work and had been accepted in a niche gallery in the city all whilst being in full time employment as a developer. So in 2018 I decided to go for it. I’m fortunate that my wife is very supportive in my passion for illustration and fully backed my decision to quit my day job. Knowing that she would be the only steady income we would have.
Where are you based now and who do you work for?
I was born and raised in the UK and moved to live in Wellington, New Zealand in 2013. Currently like a lot of creatives in the industry I'm a self-employed freelancer whose office is at home. It’s great and really suits the type of work I do as I can work for anyone worldwide.
Clients are varied and range from individuals who want me to draw a grizzly bear ripping an Orc in two (yep you read that right), to a portrait of them as a zombie, bands looking for album artwork, independent writers looking for cover art for their book and pieces of fine art. It’s cool to work with lots of varied people and come up with solutions to their ideas.
Unfortunately the Coronavirus has pretty much stopped all incoming work at the moment, so I’m on a self promotion drive and illustrating for myself, putting new printed work up in my online shop.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
My wife and I love to scuba dive still and travel with just a backpack. I’d love to think we could still be globe trotting and having more adventures on that level but as modern day life rears its ugly head I’d probably still be a software developer… for now. Until I discover something that I feel like I really want to do as a job.
Can you explain your creative process?
First off there would be some in depth communication with the client to make sure I had a good idea of what they where after from their brief. Then I’d start by doing 2 or three different very fast rough layouts. Sometimes in the old fashioned way with Biro on paper as well as digital, explaining the colours I’m thinking of using to the client to give them some options as to how it could look.
Once a rough layout is chosen I’ll do a more comprehensive sketch of the chosen layout to show more details, composition etc. At this stage there would be more communication between myself and the client, making amends if needed to get the sketch right for the clients approval. Once the final sketch is approved as a fully detailed drawing I’ll add some basic texture to show light and shadow etc.
From here I'll go to the painting stage showing the client the initial stage of colours to make sure we are on the right track then painting it until it’s complete. Once the piece is finished some overall colour tweaks can be done if needed.
As for the software I use, it’s open source software specifically for digital painting. The rough layouts and ideas are sometimes done as I’m chatting with the client or straight after when the ideas are still fresh.
When doing the sketch up for the final drawing I’ll split the main sections of sketch into a few different layers to make the process much easier to do any edits. Once I go to paint all the line work is flattened to one layer and colour painted straight onto it. I rarely use layers whilst painting as I find it more of a hindrance than a help and don’t use ‘undo’ that much I usually just paint over anything I want to change. Similar to traditional techniques when painting just in the digital world these days.
How has technology affected the way you work (if at all)?
As a digital illustrator it’s shaped the way I work a fair bit. From my business admin, accounts, workflow, sketching/painting processes to my signature style.
Technology has come a long way for digital painting and there are loads of tools available to help anyone make themselves a reputable business from it. Not forgetting the major plus for illustrating digitally when it comes to those edits. Before it would mean either starting again or erasing a section and redrawing it. This is still kinda true for my technique but much easier digitally making the process of from start to finish a lot quicker.
And of course with today’s technology it means I can work anywhere in the world.
What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?
Inspiration comes from a lot of things for me, places I visit, music, other artists, etc. I listen to music all the time whilst painting. It also helps that I'm very driven and when I want something I’ll work to get it. Anyone who knows me, knows that I won’t give up easily.
I’m always looking at other peoples work, laying on the couch of an evening doing the usual endless scroll on Instagram. There are some amazing artists out there and it’s great to see their stuff so easily. I’ll try new techniques all the time to see if I can improve some aspect of my style a little more. I like to scribble on paper and make a drawing from that. Strangely enough it helps keep me honest and stops me being bogged down in very detailed work. I normally do this as warm up sketch every morning before I start.
Your last piece is always your best so no matter what level you are at you’re always learning and improving in some way.
What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?
Not really one particular project but more a case of getting where I am today. Sounds really cheesy, I know, but in the big scheme of things I'm a small fish in a very big pond and I’m proud of that. I love the fact that people see my work and find it inspiring or want to own a piece or have me turn their idea into something they can use.
I had one of my works (right above here) used for a specialist printers award in 2019 and it won. That was a cool moment.
How do you recharge away from the office?
Living in New Zealand is amazing and walks on the beach with my wife and dog, or a short road trip to see a snow capped mountain, are always close and great for relaxing. I still find myself drawing when I'm not in front of a screen but I have always done that as a way to relax. I have sketch books scattered around the house that I pick up and start drawing in all the time.
What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?
Never give up, and other people's opinions are just that… theirs. Yes it’s a hard slog to stand out from the crowd today. Especially with the ever expanding sea of artists on the internet but stick to what you enjoy, practice a lot and get really really good at it. Then you’ll have something people will notice.
Instead of looking at all the amazing artwork online and thinking you'll never be that good, go and create something... repeat.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
To treat all artists with the same respect for their talent. Be they just starting out or veterans in the industry. Being an artist does not mean that we are privileged to be doing the work for you, we still need to eat and pay bills, same as everyone else.
There is still way too much underpaying for people starting out. I understand that students are sometimes willing to work for lower rates as they think that they wont get the work otherwise but this shouldn’t be the case. People come to you because they can’t do it themselves, that is a skill worth paying for.
In the end it’s the artists that can change this but it still seems that the need for ‘exposure’ outweighs the need to feed yourself for some and with certain websites doing the bid for the lowest offer to get the job, I doubt this will change that mindset sadly.