For many artists who cut their teeth as part of a group show, the lure of going it alone is an attractive prospect. Raising funds is one route towards achieving this goal. For others, a simple lifestyle adjustment can pay off dividends, as South African-based artist Motel Seven admits. “I don’t have a fancy phone and expensive lifestyle,” she explains. “When I do make some money from a painting, I will put it towards funding the next project.” 

Living and working out of her studio in Cape Town, Motel Seven has moved through the ranks of graffiti art to become an urban contemporary artist, showing her work at commercial galleries around the world. She describes the process of exhibiting as a solo artist as: “Kind of like an orchestra... it [your work] all sounds great together, but ultimately you want to be up there showing the world what you’re really capable of.”

Motel Seven believes exhibitions are perfect for showing people what you’re capable of

Skateboard featuring a Motel Seven design

Jon Cockley, co-founder of illustration agency Handsome Frank, recommends a more considered approach. “Think carefully about where you want to host your exhibition. Hiring a specialist gallery is expensive and not always necessary,” he explains. “There are plenty of public and private spaces that would love to have some art hung on their walls. Approach companies with regards to their reception areas – many design and advertising agencies offer these spaces for no charge.” 

Careful planning is essential and will help you stay organised and manage your time effectively, which is especially important when you’re carrying the majority of the workload. 

“Plan your schedule very well and leave a lot of contingency time,” urge Tado. “We always try to set aside a good amount of time before the show to concentrate on it solely... however, this never seems to happen right. We always have briefs that overrun into our preparation time, and we’re always working right until the last minute.”

Of course, for veteran coffee shop illustrators looking to take the next step up, exhibiting in a gallery space offers its fair share of advantages, despite the hefty price tag. As Jack observes: “The space is automatically a lot better. The gallery is the natural environment really. Bars and coffee shops can feel like a compromise.” 

And for those with little experience, working with a curator rather than a café owner immediately offers more support and reassurance. “The people helping you to put on a show are a lot more understanding in a gallery, because it’s their profession,” he says. 

Tado agree with this sentiment. “One of the reasons we like working with galleries is that often they will take full care of the press and promotion of the show, as well as all the local publicity and distributing information,” they explain. “This allows us to just get on with making the work and enjoying the opening.”

“The best part for us is the chance to let our hair down a little and play around with ideas that have been at the back of our minds” Mike & Katie, Tado

Hiring a gallery can also help you with a multitude of issues such as pricing, and takes the pressure off handling your own sales, which can be uncomfortable for illustrators who prefer to let their agent handle money matters. “If the show is going to be running for a while and is a collaboration between the gallery and artist, then it makes sense for the gallery to handle sales,” continue Tado. Spending less time working out a pricing structure, handing out flyers and nailing frames to the wall is arguably worth sacrificing a commission; normally around 50 per cent. 

Building up a network of potential clients and buyers can be time-consuming, and more than a little daunting. Making connections with the right kind of people is in itself almost a full-time job, so it comes as no surprise that one of the more attractive benefits of hiring a gallery is gaining instant access to their mailing list. 

“Unless you are a hugely established name and have accumulated a host of private collectors, it’s very hard to reach the people who are willing to spend money and invest in your work,” observes Jon Fox. He believes that working with a gallery offers artists a ready-made audience to tap into. “Serious buyers and collectors actually rely on the galleries, they build relationships with the owners, and trust their judgement of picking up-and-coming artists.” 

Scuba Diver by Maggie Li was shown at the Fathoms Deep exhibition

Maggie Li, a member of Zombie Collective, agrees. The group of five London-based illustrators and designers recently put on a nautical-themed show – Fathoms Deep – at London’s Hayward Gallery. “Working with a well-known establishment offers brilliant exposure, and the extra support ensures the event runs smoothly,” she explains. 

Self-promotion and networking are thorny issues for illustrators, and understanding the importance of PR and inviting the right people to your private view should not be overlooked. As Jon Cockley urges: “Avoid the temptation to fill your Private View with friends and family. As flattering as it is to have them there, the chances are they will never commission a piece of illustration. Concentrate on getting art buyers, designers and creatives to the event.”

Social networking is, of course, the modern day go-to tool for instant (and easy) publicity, but utilising free listing sites such as Time Out and ArtRabbit can increase your reach and attract a more diverse audience.