Giving Up The Day Job: Becoming an Illustrator – with Gemma Milly

If the words ‘MONDAY MORNING’ fill you with dread you’re not alone. So many people shudder at the Monday morning ritual; the commute to the J.T.P.T.R.(job that pays the rent), the usual office politics and the monotonous shuffling of paper. If your day job is not what you’ve always aspired to do but are sceptical about leaping into your dream career then you’ve come to the right place!

On my blogging travels I had the pleasure of meeting the lovely GEMMA MILLY. Having met at the HEART HOME LAUNCH PARTY (as Gemma did the illustrations for the 1st edition)I knew I had to share her amazing talent and career story with you.

Carlotta Gherzi at London Fashion Week
| Amelia’s Magazine |
HOP: What made you decide that you wanted to become an illustrator?
GM: I’ve always loved to draw, but after university my career path led me into Advertising. I spent six years working for various Advertising agencies before realizing that my heart really wasn’t in it and that I needed to at least try and see if I could make a go of becoming an Illustrator. So I left my job and flat in London and went back to university to study Illustration.
Red Polka Dot Dress | Personal Work

HOP: What was your previous job before you changed careers?

GM: My first job after graduating was as Project Manager for an Advertising Agency in London, which at the time I loved! I then moved agencies and eventually took a job as an Account Manager at London design agency Pearlfisher. I worked on some lovely brands but the only client which made me think twice about changing careers was CANCER RESEARCH UK – working with them was an absolute pleasure. Ultimately though an office job was not for me.
Nail Polish | Agent Amandine magazine
HOP: What subject did you study at undergraduate level, how did you go about choosing the right course for your new career and making that change?

GM: My Undergrad degree was in International Management and French, which I studied at Bath University. I graduated in 2003 and it wasn’t until 2008 that I decided to do my Masters in Illustration. Because I was giving up my job to study and Masters are not cheap, my decision about where to study was influenced by location. I had to move back home with my parents to be able to afford it, so I needed somewhere that was within an hour commute. That place was KINGSTON. I looked at other Universities such as Camberwell, LCC and Brighton, but after researching the courses they offered I decided Kingston was the one that suited me the best. Before I applied, I also met with the Head of Illustration – Jake Abrahms – and asked him as much as I possibly could about the course to be sure I was making the right decision, and he gave me some invaluable advice about applying for the course and making the most of my portfolio.
William & Kate Balcony Kiss
| Majesty Magazine |
HOP:  What were the challenges you faced in your transition?
GM: It was a pretty tough decision – giving up my life in London, leaving my gorgeous little flat in Clapham that I rented with my best friend and becoming a student again (albeit a mature student!). These are still the biggest things that make me question whether what I’ve done is the right thing, but ultimately my friends are still there (they just have a longer journey to visit me now!) and I’m always up in London for work or just visiting people, so I’ve still held on the best bits of my old life. Then there’s the job and nice big salary that came with it, which I no longer have. Having to survive on a lot less money didn’t actually bother me whilst I was studying because I was so passionate about what I was doing, it’s since I’ve started freelancing that I’ve noticed how hard it is to make money as an Illustrator, but in a way that just spurs me on to make a success of myself.
For Heart Home Magazine

HOP: With your MA in hand what was the next step?

GM: Once I’d graduated, I spent a lot of time working with Amelia Gregory of Amelia’s Magazine, writing and doing a lot fashion Illustrations for her. She had also asked me to be part of a book she was putting together about up-and-coming Fashion Illustrators, so I was very privileged to have my work featured in that. Then I took a bit of a break from work and study, and went to Canada for three months with my boyfriend, which was much needed and meant my batteries were recharged by the time I came home!
HOP: How did you go about freelancing and how did you obtain your first commission?

GM: One of the first things I did to get things moving, was to start a blog and get myself on Twitter. One of the most important things about freelancing is getting yourself out there, and these days that means making friends with the internet! You sooner discover there are loads of other creative people out there doing exactly the same thing, which makes what can often be a lonely profession feel more inclusive, and it’s also an invaluable way to get work. My first paid commission was actually for a friend – since I specialize in portraits, he asked me to create an illustration of him and his girlfriend as a surprise for their anniversary. I love jobs like that where you get to create something really special for someone. The most exciting time for me though, was this summer when I got my first wedding portrait commission from a lovely girl in New York, and sold five of my Royal Wedding portraits in one week. I was skipping around the house grinning from ear to ear for ages!

Wedding Illustration | Private Commission
HOP: What’s next for Gemma Milly Illustration?

GM:I’ve recently set up a Wedding Stationery business, specializing in Wedding Portraits and bespoke wedding stationery. Things are pretty manic at the moment with the business and managing the various freelance work I have on too, but I absolutely love it! Being involved in someone’s wedding is an enormous privilege as it’s so personal, and I love the feedback I get when I finish a portrait – it makes all the hard work worthwhile. I’m also hoping to start selling my work at Greenwich market soon, and am working on a range of products.
Want to become an Illustrator like Gemma? Here are her top tips:

1. Be passionate and stay positive. If you truly love what you do it’ll shine through in your work. Positivity is also helpful when money Is lacking
2. Be yourself. People like to work with other nice people, so let your personality shine through.
3.Make the most of social networking. I can’t stress this enough  – get yourself on Twitter and Facebook and start blogging. It’s a great way to network and become part of a community.
4. Be prepared to get knock-backs and don’t take it personally. It’s hard to get work when you first start out but keep going and those commissions will come.
5. Be business minded. At the end of the day, being an Illustrator is a profession like any other, and your ultimate aim is to make a living. I found it helpful to think about how my art could be applied to a commercial setting, rather than focusing purely on editorial and commissions. 

Images: Supplied and illustrated by the talented Gemma Milly

Want to know more about Gemma or your own unique bespoke wedding stationary designed by the lady herself. Check out Gemma’s portfolio at:

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