The illustrator and artist charts how changing where he works and who he works for has kept things fresh.
Karan Singh is an Australian artist and illustrator based in Amsterdam. While he studied interaction design, the self-taught artist has focused on visual arts and illustration for the past twelve years, drawing inspiration from graphic design sensibilities and op-art. His bold and vibrant work is a playful interpretation of minimalism, particularly focusing on depth and dimension through pattern and repetition.
His professional career has seen him based in a number of cities including Tokyo, New York, Malmö, Sydney, Melbourne and now Amsterdam - working freelance and in-house at studios such as Vault 49. Select clients he has worked with include Instagram, IBM, Apple, AirBNBNB, Nike and the band OK Go.
We sat down with the designer at the Us By Night conference in Antwerp earlier this month to unpack his creative process, passion for personal projects and the importance of keeping things fresh.
Lisa Hassell: At this point in your career you’ve reached a certain level of success – would you say sustaining a career as an illustrator is still a financially viable career choice? How important is it as a digital illustrator to be flexible and pivot your skills to attract clients?
Karan Singh: "I think because it’s such a subjective profession that toes the line between art and design, it really comes down to the individual. Creating work for commercial purposes versus self-initiated projects is a personal decision on where you’d like to align in the industry.
"I feel like I’ve been very fortunate. I was very lucky with my first jobs where I gained commercial experience in Melbourne and New York, which has really helped me understand the way the industry works from an artistic perspective. I have learnt there’s a lot of responsibility in creatively directing a campaign.
"Only after these experiences have I gone the other way and I’m exploring what art is like to pursue. Whereas many illustrators I meet come from a fine art route, and see commercial illustration as another way of monetising their work.
"I think being financially viable is a worry that will always run in the back of your head and it took me a really long time to muster up the courage to go freelance. It’s terrifying to take that initial leap, it even took a couple of years before I rented a studio. I just couldn’t justify the expense.
"I think it is an incremental evolution; it’s a mental barrier that you need to overcome and say to yourself ‘screw it, I’m going to do this,’ and more often than not there is always something valuable to learn, even if you fail.
LH: In your talk you spoke about a personal project called Daily Quickies that you started just to do something for yourself that had no client brief. Can you tell us about this, and how it developed your design thinking and helped simplify your style?
KS: "The Daily Quickies project came about at a time when it felt important to do something for myself. I had been struggling with procrastination and felt like the style I was working in was taking too long. I decided to experiment and committed to spending an hour a day drawing in a simplified line work style. By working within these restrictions and setting a time limit, I became a lot more focused than just making work for the sake of it.
"Some days the work was really successful, other days it was stressful. Some days I couldn’t think of anything to draw so I’d just draw a car. But it didn’t matter, it was more to do with the process, to do something for myself and keep up the momentum. It also came at a time when I was really unwell and so it taught me some valuable lessons.
"The first was, it was personal. Personal projects are so important – it doesn't matter how well they are executed or if you even like the work you’re making, it’s a process. After a day replying to client emails it’s a reminder that you’re in control. The second lesson was in response to my own impatience. I wanted to refine my style and I was frustrated with how long it was taking, but I used my impatience as a strength rather than a weakness and I found a way to work around it. And the third takeaway was that it felt fun; it wasn't a chore to draw anymore. It gave me a better understanding of myself and I started making the work I wanted to make.
"As a result of all this, I became really comfortable with this style which fed into my portfolio and I started attracting more work. I’ve found that a lot of the time, personal projects lead to professional work.
"It’s really important to make time for personal work, because in that time you’re reflecting yourself in your work. I’ve always been told for the longest time that you should always show the work that you want to do. This has always perpetuated my thought process. Whilst clients approach me for the style I have cultivated, I try to keep evolving and stay interested in the work.
"Personal projects are crucial, they influence and support professional work. Listening to the speakers at Us By Night over the last couple of days has enforced that even more. In any creative field, regardless of whether it’s illustration or writing, it’s so important to blow out the cobwebs and just do something different – regardless of whether the outcome is good."
LH: And interestingly it was the ‘Daily Quickies’ project that caught the attention of Vault 49, right? And you moved to New York. How did that opportunity come about?
KS: "I found the job on Twitter of all places! At that time I followed the work of Luke Choice, who currently runs a design studio in Portland called Velvet Spectrum, and saw that he had just landed a job in New York at Vault 49, and I couldn’t believe his luck.
"Soon after I saw the job ad, I sent through everything I had and it was different to what they were looking for. It was a lot of illustration work and they wanted to see diversity of styles; but the one thing that I hadn’t sent over was the Daily Quickies project.
"I didn’t know if they would respond to it – it was self indulgent, done just for me and I think that’s kind of what tipped the scales for them. They had been on the fence, but in hindsight that project showed that I was working every day and could explore concepts, not just the technical side and they respected that. It was the tipping point for me – it was half way through the project that I got the job and moved to New York."
LH: And how long were you at Vault49? Was this the only in-house role you had before going freelance?
KS: "I was there for about three and a half years and prior to that, I was working for a studio called Qube Konstrukt in Melbourne. I was there for about a year and a half. For me these roles were such a defining part of my life, not just having a job and being able to support myself but being in an environment with other creatives and getting feedback – you really learn how a project works. Both roles offered an insight into working with clients.
"My first role was a big change for me. At that point I’d only really been making work for myself in my bedroom and they taught me how to structure a project efficiently and work diligently. I’ve learnt that the technical side of things is easier to overcome, you can learn from online tutorials; but learning how to be professional, efficient and working in team came from my time with these studios.
LH: At what point did you decide to leave Vault49 and move to Amsterdam?
KS: "I left New York in 2015, to return to freelance. We moved to Tokyo where we didn’t speak the language or know anybody. I learnt the most about myself during my time there, simply from being somewhere completely new. We stayed for two years and then packed up again, this time for Amsterdam."
LH: What are your thoughts on graduates going straight into self employment after they leave University? Do you think they are missing out on developing these skills and getting into good habits early?
KS: "I think it really depends on the individual; your temperament, attitude and how disciplined you are. I’ve met many illustrators who have never worked in-house and have never needed to either.
"It’s just a matter of what works for you. Personally I found it invaluable to work in house.
"Coming from my self-taught background, I found that learning on the job was really beneficial. Starting at the bottom was insightful for me; you slowly work your way up to more interesting projects, and your responsibilities increase as your skill set and confidence grows.
"Amidst that, it was important for me to keep creating my own work. I’d spend a lot of my spare time drawing for myself. It was hard at times to scrape the energy sometimes, especially after a full day of work, but persisting with it was really rewarding.
"I wouldn’t have it any other way because I think working in house really enhanced my experience. The kind of guidance I had from those creative directors and art directors – they were my mentors. I didn’t grow up going to design school so I didn’t have teachers. Working in-house was my education."
LH: Fast forward to the present day in Amsterdam – what’s your average working day look like now? Do you have a studio space or do you work from home?
KS: "I split my week, sometimes I work from home or at my studio. I share the space with seven other designers; they’re a diverse mix of creatives working in illustration, design, film and furniture.
"It’s really nice to be in this environment. When I first returned to freelance, I mourned the loss of rapport with a creative team, and the ability to swivel my chair round and ask someone to give their opinion when I'm stuck.
"More often than not it’s my wife who acts as my quality assurance. She’s also creative, has a good eye and knows me better than anyone else, so she can spot things. Working around like-minded creatives especially from different disciplines often adds a new perspective."
LH: You’re represented by several illustration agencies – Jacky Winter in Australia, Outline Artists in the UK and you’ve just signed with Atrbute in the US. What’s your opinion on agencies? How does the relationship work?
KS: "I often get asked by illustrators if you need an agent to be successful. Personally I have found it to be really helpful, but again, much like in-house experience, I know plenty of illustrators who work without them.
"What I’ve found from working with agents is that, like an illustrator, each agent has their own style and you have to find one that fits with you, someone you’re compatible with. It’s important to find someone who cares about your work as much as you do. Much like a new job, there’s a trial phase of a couple of months to take the time and see how you’re vibing. It’s a two way street, and taking the time to properly understand their goals is important too.
"Working with them allows me to focus on my favourite part – the creative side of things, while they use their knowledge to handle the negotiations, contracts and schedule. The more I’ve worked with agents, the more I appreciate all the value they add and how hard they work.
LH: So would you say you’ve had the opportunity to work on more ambitious projects that are more fruitful as a result of your agents negotiating higher fees? Do you get approached directly more often?
KS: "Projects still vary in size and budgets; and people still approach artists both through an agent or directly. Budgets are not always that simple to negotiate. If there’s no more budget available they can’t necessarily make more appear.
"I think you have to be reasonable and empathetic with your agent, which comes from working together and building trust, understanding and ensuring that we’re all getting what we want from the experience, regardless of scale."
LH: Which of your recent projects are you most proud of?
KS: "The Nike Winter Olympics project was really satisfying for me; it gave me an opportunity to really push myself in terms of animation and it was really creatively fulfilling. It was pretty special to have a client trust in your vision and let you do your thing.
"I’m also really proud of the puzzle created with Clemens Habicht and Lamington Drive. It’s now being stocked in MoMA, which makes it really memorable for me. I never thought as an immigrant kid from Western Sydney that one day my career could lead to something like this. I’m in the building!"
LH: What’s next for you? Now that you’ve got your first product in the MoMA store has it sparked interested in pursuing products or 3D work in future? Or toys?
KS: "Absolutely. I used to collect vinyl toys. When I was living in New York I queued up for a Parra toy. I took the morning off just so I could be at the Kid Robot store on Prince Street when the doors opened – it was right around the corner from where we lived. I got to the store and I was the only one in line! [laughs] I was like, ‘What’s going on? Why am I the only one in line for this? Why is no-one else this excited?!’
"I stood in this one person line for a couple of hours and nobody came. When they opened, I went in, and asked if I could buy two. They said ‘No, it’s one per customer.’ But there was literally nobody else in the store"
"I went into work later that day, and when I got in my friend Luke said that he had just bought one online instead [laughs]. I had taken a morning off and everything! So yes, I’ve always been into figurines and toys, and I have always been fascinated by decorative sculpture and pottery.
"Translating my work from 2D to 3D is a big leap for me and it’s opened up so much more potential for where my work could go – augmented reality for example. It’s so important for me to see work offscreen in different environments. Toys, prints, apparel – physical things, when they exist in the world, that’s when they feel tangible and the most real to me.
LH: Can you share anything you’ve been working on recently that we can look forward to seeing soon?
KS: "About a year ago I worked on a campaign to create the key art for the Southeast Asian Games which is taking place in the Philippines this November. They discovered my work online, and really liked the gestural approach in my hand illustrations and the idea of people coming together; so we evolved that style into something new by combining it with portraiture.
"It’s a huge project for me – about 20 illustrations – and that is coming out in the next few months which is really exciting.
"Aside from that, I want to keep finding time to fit more personal work in. I’ve been doing some screen printing with my friend Rutger Paulusse, who is also Netherlands-based - so we try and do that regularly. It’s a great way to get away from the screen and interact with your work in a different way, and make peace with the fact that some things are out of your control. There’s no ‘undo’ button when you screen print! It’s refreshing to work in different ways and reset once in a while."