As soon as I came across Duncan Beedie’s illustrations, I knew I had found the expert I was looking for. Based at his Paintworks studio in Bristol, Duncan has forged a name for himself as a freelance illustrator. With three children’s books in the making, his work has a simple charm that leaves you with a smile on your face (Ivor the dog being a personal favourite). With a background in 2D animation, Duncan has worked on a number of recognisable projects, with clients including CBBC, Penguin and Aardman Animations. Keen to find out more about the life of a successful illustrator, I was thrilled when Duncan agreed to take a break from his sketchbook and answer my questions.
So Duncan, have you always been interested in illustration?
I have been drawing and doodling ever since I was a young child and would wile away the hours on my parent’s living room floor drawing storm troopers, dogs, space ships, you name it. I veered away from art in general after my A-levels and did an English degree. I was all set to do as post-grad course in journalism when, one day, I had a gut instinct to pull out of the course and signed up for a three month 2D animation course run by UWE in Bristol. Needless to say, I am happy that I made that decision.
That’s an amazing story! Did you go on to get any further qualifications or training?
Other than the three month animation crash course, I have no official qualifications in illustration or design. Totally self-taught you could say. I’ve always loved drawing characters and things off the top of my head and even in lectures or lessons that had nothing to do with art; I would be doodling in the back of my lever arch file. I had a succession of maths and science teachers who became adept at throwing bits of chalk at my head when they realised I was concentrating more on the caricatures I was drawing than the equations on their blackboard.
So what is the most enjoyable part of working as a freelance illustrator?
I love being my own boss and working to my own schedule. That said I do stick to a pretty normal routine and I try not to work weekends or evenings, especially as I have a family now. In terms of actual illustration, I really enjoy the satisfaction of knowing when a piece is nearly there. Not because I don't enjoy the process, but it's always good to look back at the rough drafts and the way an image has evolved.
Good answer! On the other hand then, what is the most challenging part?
For me, getting the colour right is something I can agonise over, but it's worth the experimentation when you finally settle on a palette that works. Also, some art directors can be 'challenging'.
So how did you get into children’s illustration?
My career seemed to morph from animation to illustration. TV animation production had all but died out in the UK in the mid 2000s, and I began working for a digital agency specialising in children's apps and games. Animating for apps can be pretty perfunctory, so when I returned to the freelance world I was more interested in creating background art and character designs. After a bit of a lull I eventually secured an agent in Illustration Ltd and I was tailoring my work for children's illustration simply because they were the characters that engaged me the most from a creative standpoint.
How easy do you find it coming up with ideas for characters?
Coming up with ideas for characters is relatively easy. For me it is always the very first part of the process. An image or idea may come to me at any part of the day or night and I have to quickly scribble it down on something. Then, if I've got the chance, I'll begin working the character up in the studio the next day. The more arduous process is developing a story for those characters - I realise I am doing the process backwards compared to most other writers, but it seems to be working alright so far.
That brings me on nicely to your children’s book, or books should I say – can you tell us anything about them?
Without a doubt, learning that Templar wanted to publish my debut children's book was the proudest moment of my career so far. It's called 'The Bear Who Stared' and it is out in February. Working directly with a publisher on my own material was an entirely new experience for me and I couldn't have been luckier to be teamed up with Alison Ritchie and Genevieve Webster (she's the co-creator of 'Rasta Mouse' to boot!) The second book is well underway.
I can’t wait to see it! So when you are working on a book or TV show, how long do you get to create your illustrations?
For a commission, clients will allow the first week to rough out character designs before whittling it down to a selection they want to take forward. It depends on the type of job. Editorial jobs can have a 24 hour turnaround so time is minimal. But for a (small) book, an editor will allocate a bit more time to get it just right. In my experience it's been about a fortnight for rough artwork and another month or two for colour artwork once they are happy. But it all comes down to the amount of artwork they want.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I can only speak for a non-educated professional like myself, but I would say to not be afraid to take the leap. It doesn't really matter when you 'scratch the itch' as it were, but if you have an inkling or desire to work in illustration and are passionate about it, it'll gnaw at you until you commit.
Also, listen to advice from industry professionals but be selective. The internet is awash with 'experts' telling you how to tailor your work, approach clients, etc. Too much advice can be bamboozling. Tailor your portfolio to the kind of clients you want to attract, but don't be afraid to get your work out under agents' noses. Even if they don't like it, they will give you creative feedback on how to improve your chances.
Failing that, just watch Shia LaBeouf's empowering motivational video on YouTube and "JUST DO IT!"
I really love that answer – thanks Duncan! Finally then, which artists or illustrators out there most inspire you, and why?
There are a great many illustrators who I admire, so I'll only concentrate on a couple here. Shaun Tan is basically a demi-god in my book; composition, texture, colour, the works. Take a page from any one of his books and it wouldn't look out of place in the National Gallery. Another is Jon Klassen; his 'Hat' books are a master class in subtle storytelling. He can bring humour or charm to a page with the faintest of gestures or expressions.
Thank you so much Duncan, best of luck with the books!
If Duncan has inspired you to pick up your coloured pencils and start sketching, why not take a look at the illustration courses listed on Hotcourses?