"I don't think there should be any kind of leader. I'd feel guilty if that's how I'm perceived."
I've just been discussing the close-knit nature of the illustration world with Ben the Illustrator, considering if perhaps many might deem him to be the community's de-facto leader.
It's not an outrageous question; between Ben's massive social presence and the now much-awaited tradition of his annual Illustrator's Survey, the artist – real name Ben O'Brien – has come to be seen as one of the leading voices in illustration. Leading, if not the outright leader, not in Ben's eyes anyway.
"I just think I'm more outspoken," he tells me in the sky-high Digital Arts studio, cameras filming us. "I'm lucky to have a lot of experience; experience of having a bad client, of having a good client. I know what it's like to go for long periods without any work, and I don't mind sharing that."
While Ben shares his life as an illustrator on Twitter to the art community, the Illustrator's Survey is a chance for the community to get its voice heard en masse. On its third year running, the 2020 iteration of the survey reveals its results today, and Digital Arts had the chance to discuss them with Ben for our video interview above in the headline.
Alternatively, read our interview below to see what the Illustrator's Survey 2020 revealed about the state of play for artists today in the UK and worldwide, and Ben's thoughts on the findings.
The survey began in 2017 as a way for Ben to escape his 'bubble' on social media to explore how the industry as a whole was doing. That year saw Ben with less work than usual, making the creative curious whether Brexit was to blame, and wondering whether other illustrators were having the same issues. Serendipitously, our video above was shot on the same day Britain left the European Union, allowing for a full circle of sorts to come together. While Big Ben may not have struck 12 that night, we had our own 'Big Ben' to sound off, as it were.
Ben surveyed more than 1300 illustrators this time around, answering over 60 questions in the latter half of 2019. Check out Ben's site for all the stats, with the main takeaways as follows.
What illustrators love
"The main thing is the community," Ben reveals about one of his open-ended questions on the survey: 'What do you love about the industry?'
"Whether on social media or in small real-life networks, there's an amazing, friendly, supportive and inclusive community.
"People also love they've found a job that's essentially drawing for a living," he continues, "and being their own boss; choosing where and when you want to work, and how you want to work."
Over 57% of illustrators want to meet up regularly with peers – but don't
"A lot of illustrators are a little bit sensitive, a little bit shy. A lot are working at home, and so they aren't working with a team of people every day. As such there is introversion, there are mental health issues.
"The thing that can help people is getting out there to see other people, but it's hard to do that for some illustrators. Some might feel they're the only illustrator in their town, but the more we can bring little groups together, then it really helps.
"It makes people feel more confident, it makes people feel less alone. And (when meeting) you realise others are having the same sort of problems with clients or briefs, and there's a sharing of ideas, educating each other.
"The more we can initiate opportunities for people to meet, the better it is for everyone."
Almost half of illustrators had a bigger workload than the year before
"The results are a little skewed as some people may have had no work the year before, but I do think there is more illustration work out there.
"More corporations are using illustration work; more tech companies using illustrators instead of just using icon designs.
"I also feel like there's a lot more going on in children's publishing, and more illustrators working in animation and games. As we all diversify, illustration as a thing is spreading into newer areas."
Almost half of illustrators mainly make money from private commissions
"The public seem to be more aware of illustrators now than when I started the survey. Certainly more than 10, 20 years ago.
"People who aren't involved in illustration or commissioning it are getting behind people and wanting their own pieces from these illustrators.
"A lot of illustrators now do custom prints, portraits, even pet portraits. They make for more interesting gifts, I think."
A quarter of illustrators have worked without contracts
"You generally don't have contracts. In editorial for example, when you get a commission on the Monday, and it needs to go online Thursday, there's no time for a contract necessarily. They might give you their standard terms, but nothing else.
"But there's a lot of work where you'd be daft to work without contracts. Anything in advertising, anything where you're handing over something they could use for other things, then you got to get a contract."
The key to success and good mental health
"You need to have an income, to be able to do personal work and let that beast out.
"You need to talk to people; not everyday, but know there is support out there."
But over 55% of illustrators can't successfully balance personal work with client work...
"Personal work is important. Everything where I've taken my business in new directions has come out of personal work. That's because I get to experiment more, and indulge in passions.
"If people get caught in that cycle of low-budget work, they have no time left for personal stuff. It's distracting.
"I never have a steady inflow of work, so when I'm not doing client work, I do personal work."
Social isn't everything: almost 30% answered that their website brought in the most work in 2019
"My portfolio is a mix of commissioned work and personal, to show clients what I'm capable of. That can get you into other areas.
"As such, having a good portfolio website is a good way of keeping everything going, to maintain a stable income."
67% of illustrators want the industry to be more inclusive
"I live in a bit of a bubble on Twitter, and I think 'there's a lot of diversity here' but it doesn't necessarily mean that all the people are getting the work, or the right people are getting opportunities.
"It all comes back to school. There should be more diversity in teachers in schools, because people need to see yourself somewhere to give something as you grow up.
"We need more diversity in colleges, in universities, so that people feel like there's a route for them, a path.
"We want people to feel like they're not the first, that they know they can do this. We need that path to be there for them."
Find all the results of the Illustrator's Survey 2020 on The Illustrator Survey website.
Watch our interview with Ben on YouTube plus chats with other illustrators and designers on the Digital Arts YT channel.
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