Owen Davey talks to Adam Ming
About football and being a professional illustrator
This is an unusually long piece, originally published as a blogpost. I’m sharing this again because most of you have not seen it, and it has a ton of practical information from an illustrator who has 15 years in the business, doing both editorial illustrations and childres’s books. And I promise tomorrow I’ll go back to my short punchy notes on illustration.
Illustration: Owen Davey www.owendavey.com
There are 2 ways to meet your heroes.
The first is at the journey’s end. At the peak of any endeavor or journey, you get to meet the few others who have reached that point. A world leader gets to meet other world leaders. An elite athlete will get to meet other elite athletes. This kind of meeting does nothing to help the adventuresome journey-person.
The second way to meet your hero is on the behest of the hero’s initiative. The hero decides to visit with the adventuresome journey-person. To share their knowledge of the paths ahead, and offer some words of advice.
This is the kind of meeting I had with my hero. Every month, Owen and some others host portfolio chats particularly for the purpose to encourage diversity in the illustration industry. Every month I’ve tried to snap up an opportunity to get onto one of these one-on-one chats. And one day, I finally did. (My trick was to turn on the notification bell of Owen’s posts)
I prepped for it, and I took notes.
I’m writing this to help me remember the conversation and to help my fellow journey people. This is my interpretation from memory and quickly scribbled notes, so if there are any errors they are on my part, not Owens.
This was written a day before EURO20 football finals, the second most prestigious international football tournament after the World Cup. England faces Italy on home soil. Tradition, home advantage, a Wembley stadium filled with fans, a strong number 9 leading the English team, and Gareth Southgate a manager who famously missed a penalty in this very tournament in 1996 has his a shot of redemption. Drama. They face a skillful Italian side in their prime lead by an Experienced manager in Roberto Manchini.
Because Owen is English, I had to spend a few precious minutes asking Owen, which country had the better team, and which country had the better manager. Owen laughs at this surprising opening question but digs right into it pointing out the difficulties Southgate has had over the years, including death threats, for his missed penalty. Owen points out at the end of the day, it’s just a game. “I really feel for the guy, and now seeing him able to bounce back, and get where he is, that’s really admirable”. “With that said, I think we’re going to lose on Sunday”.
I share this part of our conversation with you fellow journeyman or woman to point out that Owen is both passionate yet practical. I believe is this combination of traits that have made him so successful and influential in the field over the last decade.
As we talk I look around his Brighton studio, which opens up into a lawn, bathed in the golden summer sunlight. And I think to myself, pandemic or not, here is someone who is getting on with it.
I quote a 2013 interview where Owen mentioned that he has a ‘catalog of self-initiated work’, which he mostly tries to incorporate into his client work. I also asked, what do you know that other illustrators don’t know.
The answer to those questions kind of go together.
“ I don’t know anything that others don’t”, I just see the world a particular way, but everyone does. Everyone can look at the same ‘pear’ but you’ll get a hundred different interpretations of the same pear.”
“It’s really about knowing what you like to draw, what interests you, and trying to bring that into the client work.”
“For example; I really like drawing flowers now, and if I get an assignment to illustrate an article about moving house. I will try to focus on the part about moving the plants.”
This idea to put more of yourself and your particular curiosity would later come up again in our conversation when we talk about some of the books Owen has Authored.
I don’t think I can count the number of awards Owen has won with two hands. So I had to ask him if awards were important.
“No.” Was his initial response, followed by, “I suppose they help with exposure”.
He mentioned the 3x3 and the World Illustration Awards as the more ‘important’ ones to him. But goes on to point out that these are really subjective.
His answers here hinted at the important thing I would learn next.
How to get work?
I asked this question to Owen before in a DM to which he said. Are you in contact with a lot of people who hire illustrators? I would start there. I asked him to elaborate.
If you were starting out now, how would you approach it?
“Do a lot of promotion.”
“I don’t really need to promote my work as much anymore.”
“But for the first 5-7 years” I did a lot of promotion.
Was this before you had an agent?
“No, I was doing it and my agent was doing it for me.”
“Assume nobody knows your work, tell them who you are, put low-resolution images into the body of your email so they can see your amazing work” (I’m going to follow up with Owen for specific sizes), And say I would like to work with you.”
Owen would reach out to at least one person every day maybe two.
“You have to be strategic about it, don’t just draw whatever you feel like” (Adam: Something my agent also told me)
“Look at the articles that are being published with illustrations. If for example, you see a lot of articles about migration, do an illustration about migration. Do full spreads and spot illustration for the same article”
“You need to be able to show them that you can draw a cucumber and make it interesting in your style”.
“Draw an infographic of a cucumber”
“Draw maps, maps are always in demand because…. You can’t find a photograph of a map”
“I believe illustrators should diversify; you can make a good living in publication, and you can make a good living doing editorial, but if you can do both, then you can make a really good living.”
On writing non-fiction
Because I’m looking to illustrate and author my own nonfiction books, I asked Owen about his process.
“It’s basically the same as researching any project.”
“Make sure you cover the basics, then follow your particular curiosity wherever it takes you, and check your facts”
“Wikipedia is a good place to start because it will lead you to all sorts of interesting places. Then use a more credible source to check your facts”.
At about this point we came up on time. He took a look at some of my work and pointed out a couple that he found to stand out. I’d like to thank Owen again for his time I find the information about the road ahead so useful.
To sum up, what I learned over our 30-minute conversation I would say to succeed in this business you might want to assume these decidedly English traits of being passionate and practical.
I’ll end with a quote by Owen that I found on the internet,
“I don’t love being a human paintbrush, but sometimes that’s where the best money is”
If you liked this; I have two more like them: