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9 techniques for tackling an illustration brief

There are a lot of hurdles to avoid when it comes to tackling a new illustration commission. From handling nightmare clients (opens in new tab) and distractions from working from home (opens in new tab), to knowing the latest illustration trends (opens in new tab) and the best pencils (opens in new tab) to use, it isn't always plain sailing.

Find out how four leading London-based artists – Michael Driver, Fernando Volken Togni, Jamie Jones and Josh McKenna – tackle the creative process and the practical side of freelancing in the short film below.

The four illustrators, represented by agency MP Arts (opens in new tab), also offer their hard-won advice for how to tackle an illustration brief. Read on for their tips on how to improve your creative process and make it as a professional illustrator.

01. Stay flexible throughout

How to tackle an illustration brief: stay felixible throughout

Fernando Volken Togni's geometric style - as seen in this work for IBM - makes complex topics more accessible

"I gather up the information I need and read the brief three or four times," says Fernando Volken Togni (opens in new tab). "I'll sketch a basic scheme of what to do, but sometimes the work changes completely in the middle. I experiment, I flip shapes, I change colours and there's not much of a line I follow. As long as you pass the right message."

02. Seek out visual clues

How to tackle an illustration brief: seek out visual clues

Jamie Jones’ work for Jameson Whiskey

For editorial work, Jamie Jones (opens in new tab) always tries to pull out areas of visual interest in the text for inspiration. "From there, I try to give myself as much time as I can so it can be swimming around in my head and my brain absorbs the concept within that," he explains.

"I draw as much as I can and hope something comes out. That stage can either go really well or be quite frustrating. Sometimes the best time for getting ideas is on a walk, or on a train."

03. Never stop sketching

How to tackle an illustration brief: never stop sketching

Josh McKenna’s work for Converse

"I have a sketchbook with me at all times," reveals Josh McKenna (opens in new tab). "I'll get the brief and sketch up tiny, rough ideas, then develop two or three into larger thumbnails.

At that point I'll usually show the client for feedback for the idea," he continues. "If it gets the go-ahead, I'll scan it in and trace the sketch using Illustrator, so I keep all the natural form that I drew by hand."

04. Save your nice pens for later

How to tackle an illustration brief: Save your nice pens for later

One of a series of editorial illustrations by Michael Driver for Mosaic science magazine about how basketball can break down stigma around disability

Michael Driver (opens in new tab) always opts for the worst drawing tool he can find when sketching initial ideas. "A rubbish pen is great. You never think: 'That mark is great!' because it's just a Biro drawing. You can just focus on the idea," he explains.

"Once I've got the roughs, I usually colour them blue and sometimes add colour underneath them before sending them to the art director. It's a good point to talk about how colour can be used in compositions."

05. Prioritise at the sketching stage

How to tackle an illustration brief: Prioritise

An illustration by Josh McKenna for Wired World 2015 magazine

For Josh McKenna, prioritising is key – and the easiest point to control how much time to spend on a project is at the sketching stage. "If I have three jobs on, I'll have a day where I just do initial sketches to show the client," he says. "I develop them further in order of importance."

06. Stay on top of your deadlines

In this short film, the illustrators focus on the essential art of time management and share their advice for hitting deadlines."You need to have discipline. The key is to be organised, because it's all about your routine," advises Fernando Volken Togni.

07. Pin everything on the wall

How to tackle an illustration brief: pin everything on the wall

Posters by Fernando Volken Togni for RBS Brazil

Rather than complex project management software, Fernando Volken Togni favours a simple corkboard: "I pin everything on it," he smiles.

"I need to visually know what's happening. I separate them by colour for different clients, and try to be very organised with that. It feels great to throw the Post-Its away when I finish."

08. Plan out your whole week

How to tackle an illustration brief: Plan out your week

Illustrations for CIM magazine The Marketer by Jamie Jones

With multiple projects going on at once, it can all get overwhelming. Jamie Jones advocates planning out an overview of each week.

"Work out what you're doing each day – maybe even split it into half-days," he says. "It sounds obvious, but the number of people that actually do that is probably quite small."

09. Don't bite off more than you can chew

When you first start out, it can be tempting to say 'yes' to every job. Michael Driver learnt the hard way how tough that can be, with plenty of late nights.

"That's something you're never taught at university. You can't really be taught how to be hard on yourself. Now I take short lunch breaks and get up slightly earlier."

This article first appeared inside Computer Arts issue 249, a special issue looking at how to power up your skills as a freelancer and more. Subscribe to the magazine here (opens in new tab).

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